The hands behind St. Francis

For all the touchdowns hauled in by St. Francis High senior receiver Travis Talianko — 24 in two varsity seasons — it might very well have been a slam dunk that proved most vital to his days as a Golden Knights standout and Division I college prospect.

Teaching a physical education class, Golden Knights Coach Jim Bonds saw a middle-school version of Talianko on some adjacent basketball courts. A slam dunk followed and soon, too, did Bonds, inquiring with the young man as to what high school he would be attending. When Talianko replied St. Francis, Bonds asked him if his plans included football.

They did and they have.

Over the last two seasons, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Talianko has made a name for himself while leaving defenses scratching their heads and his fellow Golden Knights rejoicing in his success. Blessed with a pair of hands as giant as they are reliable, he has shown a knack for big catches and a nose for the end zone in collecting more than his share of All-Mission League, All-CIF and All-Area accolades.

"The ball goes up, he's gonna come down with it," Bonds said. "He's special that way."

Now, Talianko enters his senior season with the Golden Knights as a two-way starter with plenty of eyes upon him, college offers likely awaiting and one last impression to make.

The first impression made by football upon Talianko was a lasting one.

He took up flag football in junior high and immediately took a liking to a certain aspect of the game.

"I don't think I dropped a ball all year, so ever since then, I always wanted to play receiver," Talianko says.

Largely he has. As a freshman, though, he was called on to play tight end and defensive end. As a prodigy of flag football, he had never really dealt with the physicality of the game.

"We went out there and I got embarrassed," Talianko says of first day in pads.

Eventually, though, Talianko caught on. Just how much of the equation was his natural skills of catching the ball and getting himself open and just how much was hard work isn't quite measurable, but it's clear that Talianko has exemplified both.

"Best hands I've ever seen in high school," Bonds says. "Every once in a while he'll drop an easy pass, but he makes all the tough catches. That's stuff you can't really teach, it just comes naturally to him."

That certainly doesn't mean Talianko hasn't built a reputation among his peers for working hard and going the extra length to improve his game.

When junior quarterback Jared Lebowitz transferred in the offseason from Vermont to play at St. Francis, he became the third quarterback in as many seasons that Talianko would catch passes from.

As a sophomore, Talianko caught 52 passes for 859 yards and seven touchdowns with Mission League Offensive Player of the Year Justin Posthuma as the team's signal-caller. Then, last year as a junior, Talianko tallied 59 receptions for 946 yards and an eye-spinning 17 touchdowns. This time, it came with All-Area Player of the Year Brett Nelson at quarterback.

With Lebowitz' entrance, Talianko stepped up to once again build a rapport between the team's starting quarterback and go-to receiver.

"Travis is one of the hardest workers I've seen," Lebowitz says. "We would work before school, after school.

"Obviously, it took some time to get the timing down, but with Travis, you throw the ball in his general direction, he's gonna usually come down with it."

As an added element to Talianko's work rate comes a personality on the field that doesn't jive well with disappointment. It's an aspect of his personality that he's had throughout his competitive life.

"You know those Little League pitchers that cry on the mound? That was me," Talianko says. "I hated failing, so I was hard on myself."

In Bonds' eyes, sometimes too hard.

""He's extremely hard on himself," Bonds says. "Sometimes he shows that with his body language.

"He has high expectations, he's a perfectionist."

But as Talianko has progressed at St. Francis into a leader, Bonds has spoken with him about curbing his outward expression of disappointment. And in many ways, Talianko has worked on becoming every bit the mental player as the physical one.

"His best attribute, besides the obvious, his amazing hands, he runs the best routes," Lebowitz says. "He just knows the subtle nuances. He knows the game.

"Travis knows where to be. He knows where I need to put the ball, so he gets there and he gets there as quickly as he can."

Talianko credits Bonds with a great deal of his mental maturation as a receiver.

"What Coach Bonds has really done has been helping me out with the mental part of football and reading defenses," Talianko says. "I think one of my specialties is finding a hole and finding out how to get open."

One of Talianko's specialties clearly wasn't the defensive side of the ball, though.

With his flag football experience once again perhaps hindering him, Talianko is quick to admit that when he was put into the defensive backfield as a junior, he was most assuredly an offensive player out of his comfort zone.

"I didn't know how to tackle much," he says. "I struggled cause I really didn't know what I was doing."

Still, Talianko tallied 25 tackles and got more than his fair share of reps as a safety.

"At first, he didn't get the hang of it, but honestly, he's so athletic that he adjusted to it pretty easily," says cornerback and receiver Parker Nieves.

Things have changed drastically for Talianko on the defensive side of the ball. So much so, in fact, that upon earning his first scholarship offer from San Jose State, he learned he could have a chance at playing receiver or safety for the Spartans.

"The biggest change you're gonna see is on the defensive side of the ball," Bonds says. "He's sticking people and he's enjoying it."

In fact, for a player that was seemingly playing defense to do right by his team at one time, Talianko has also grown quite fond of his duties at free safety.

"I love scoring, but it's also fun to lay someone out," he says.

Thus, Talianko is prepared to be a weapon for St. Francis on both sides of the ball as the season is set to dawn. In addition, as one of five of his team's captains, one would be hard-pressed to imagine him having any greater role with the Golden Knights.

He says he's worked extra hard on his conditioning to go both ways and, to hear his teammates and coaches alike, he's improved by leaps and bounds offensively and defensively. Mentally, he's ready as well, ready even to be a decoy as most defenses figure to double-team him on offense — something he saw in large quantities last season, but was still able to exploit.

While much has changed since that day not all that long ago when Bonds saw an athletic youngster dunk a basketball, at the root of it all, Talianko is still the kid who enjoys doing what he's best at — catching the ball.

"If he actually drops a ball, we're all pretty stunned," Nieves says. "I cover him one-on-one in practice all the time. It's not easy to cover that guy."

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