LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — Though the St. Francis High soccer team could do no better or worse than its second-place Mission League standing and the same went for the first-place Loyola Cubs, there was clearly no lack of motivation when the rivals collided in Wednesday evening's league finale between the teams.
"It was playoffs a week early, wasn't it?" said St. Francis Coach Glen Appels.
Played in front of a large and vocal Friedman Field crowd, the match was a see-saw physical affair that ultimately saw the Golden Knights run out of time in a valiant comeback attempt, as they fell to the Cubs, 4-3.
"What a great atmosphere for a soccer match," said Appels, who went out of his way to praise parents and the student body for showing up in droves for the match. "I'm disappointed we couldn't pull it out for them."
It certainly wasn't for lack of dramatics, with the brother combination of forwards Eric and Mark Verso combining for all three goals, as the Golden Knights (13-9, 9-3 in league) did their best to come back time and time again against the Cubs (18-2-6, 11-0-1), ranked third in CIF Southern Section Division I.
"It's always the biggest game of the regular season," said Eric Verso, who had two second-half goals and a first-half assist on his younger brother's goal. "We always look for the date on the calendar."
Loyola took the season series after a 2-1 win in the first meeting on the strength of a late-game penalty kick.
Eric Verso, a senior, assisted on sophomore Mark's tally in the 15th minute to tie the match at 1 after Loyola's Andre Brown scored the first of his three goals on the day.
Brown struck again in the 22nd minute, but St. Francis' downfall defensively came during a two-minute span in the second half in which Adam Goldfaden was unmarked roughly 30 yards out and blasted home a goal in the 44th minute and Brown then scored a minute later, heading in a 50-50 ball just in front of the St. Francis net.
"Really, the difference in the game was they had three long-distance shots that went in," said Appels, whose team saw Loyola keeper Cole Moffat make 11 saves. "We had four [good long-distance shots] right at the goalie's chest."
Despite the lopsided score, the match was back and forth from beginning to end and St. Francis finally broke through in the second half when Sean Fitzpatrick sent a pass inside the box from the right wing and Eric Verso did the rest. Verso used some splendid footwork to work and spin through a double mark, working for enough space to line a shot inside the far post for a 4-2 score in the 66th minute.
Later, with a high ball sent toward frame, Eric Verso went all out in the air, as his header was knocked away by Moffat as the two collided. The rebound went to St. Francis' Thomas Banks, who didn't hesitated in delivering a lined shot that Moffat was also there to save.
Not long after that, Loyola was given a red card for a handball of a ball played by Mark Verso in the box. Eric Verso calmly booted in a 4-3 score in the 74th minute, followed the ball in to retrieve and brought it back to midfield, but the comeback ended there.
St. Francis had one more shot saved, but it was up to Golden Knights goalie Paul Dean to make a diving save late in the game to preserve the comeback bid. Dean finished with seven saves.
While the match had no bearing in the standings, Appels is also hopeful it has no bearing in holding his team back momentum-wise heading into next week's playoffs.
"We're not gonna spend a lot of time worrying about this," he said. "It's on to playoffs."
And, as a pleasant sign of momentum, Eric Verso, the 2009 All-Area Player of the Year, seems to be recovering from a knee injury that had sidelined him for much of the season.
"This year's been really frustrating," Verso said. "I'm finally starting to turn the corner. … I'm really looking forward to playoffs."
Said Appels: "He doesn't want to leave here quietly."