Verso, Knights come up clutch in first round

LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — Though it seems as though it's been a while, coming up clutch in the playoffs is nothing new for St. Francis High senior forward Eric Verso.

Having missed his junior season and much of his current campaign, Verso still maintains that he's not quite 100%, but on Friday afternoon, the Golden Knights' play certainly was and their standout striker's dramatics were at their best and then some.

Verso tallied two scores, including the dramatic game-winner with just two minutes left to lift St. Francis past Thousand Oaks, 2-1, at St. Francis' Friedman Field in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division I playoffs.

"A lot of guys get a little nervous in the big games," said Verso, who put the Golden Knights up in the 57th minute and scored the game-winner in the 78th, "but those are the moments I play for, this is why I play soccer."

St. Francis will now play Ventura, a 3-2 winner over Fountain Valley, on Wednesday at a site to be determined by a coin flip in the second round.

"It's always gonna be this kind of game," said St. Francis Coach Glen Appels, whose team improved to 14-9 with its win over the Lancers (9-6-4), the Marmonte League's No. 2 seed. "It's Division I soccer."

Verso, who has now scored eight goals in his last three matches, led St. Francis to the Division I semifinals and the CIF Southern California Division II Regional Championships title during an All-Area Player of the Year sophomore season. After skipping his junior year to play with the U.S. Soccer Academy and dealing with injury problems for a good part of his senior year, he seems to have gained his clutch form of two seasons past.

"Eric is a top-class striker," Appels said. "He's a guy who comes through in the big moments."

So too did many of the Golden Knights, second-place finishers in the Mission League. Not the least of which was junior midfielder Eric Bocanegra, who drew three defenders to the right as he brought the ball inside the penalty box before dishing left to Verso, who had enough space to get off a scoring shot that sent the St. Francis sideline into a delirium.

"Eric had one minute of composure amid the chaos while everybody was running around," Appels said. "That one minute of composure was the difference in the game."

Junior midfielder Thomas Banks assisted on Verso's first tally, popping up a pass into the box that Verso flicked to himself to adjust before poking a left-footed shot forward that deflected off a defender and into the goal for a 1-0 lead.

Thousand Oaks' Luke Hoffmann scored the equalizer in the 76th minute. The shot came from roughly 30 yards out, leaving St. Francis junior goalie Paul Dean little chance as the ball squirted just in between the left post and Dean's diving attempt at a stop. It was the one blemish on the day, as St. Francis' defense was sturdy throughout and, when it wasn't, Dean stepped up big, making six saves, including a phenomenal diving stop on a free kick.

"Our back four were very good," said Appels of seniors Sean Fitzpatrick, Tim Nguyen and Jake LaPorte and freshman Jeffrey Quezada.

Defensively, though clearly at a disadvantage in the height department, St. Francis also stood up magnificently to Thousand Oaks' set pieces, which proved to be the visitor's best offensive weapon. That came largely due to sophomore forward Mark Verso, Eric's younger brother, who at one point cleared four straight balls in the second half, whether they came on free kicks, throw-ins or corner kicks in front of the Golden Knights net.

"I told the guys once, Mark gets to 85% of the balls," said Appels, whose team advanced to the second round last year, winning by a goal in the opening round and losing by a goal in the second. "The guys corrected me and said he gets to all of them."

St. Francis had a distinct advantage for most of the contest in possession and run of the game, but it did little as the rain poured down and seemed to play to the favor of a more physical Lancers squad rather than the Golden Knights, who continued to use their touch passing to control the tempo.

"The first 15 minutes, we looked brilliant, we just didn't score anything," said Appels, who added that the team made the adjustment to play a bit more direct in the second half and to try and accommodate a more physical style that didn't seem to be getting all that many whistles. "The playoffs are survival and you have to play with the conditions.

"We told the guys if [the officials] are gonna let [the physical play] go, then you're gonna have to match that. You can't stand around and have a beautifully-played loss."

That certainly wasn't the case, as the Golden Knights pulled out another close CIF encounter, something they've become accustomed to, season after season.

"I wish we could get a little bigger margin sometimes," said Eric Verso of all the close playoff games, "but at the same time, it wouldn't be as much fun."

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