LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — A year removed from a devastating, down-to-the-wire loss that set in motion a losing streak, St. Francis High's football team proved emphatically that it's a different season and a different team.
Behind a phenomenal defensive performance and a second-quarter offensive surge, St. Francis defeated West Ranch, 35-0, on Friday night at Friedman Field, avenging last year's one-point loss to the Wildcats in the process.
"We knew revenge was sweet," said St. Francis senior linebacker Ryan McAleenan, who had one of his team's five sacks. "We wanted to get some revenge, we should have won that game [last year]. It feels great."
St. Francis lost at West Ranch, 35-34, a season ago, but this time around, there was no fourth-quarter back-and-forth. Instead, there was a running clock, thanks in large part to the Golden Knights defense posting its second shutout of the season, as it allowed just 66 total yards, four first downs and forced six three-and-outs.
"I think them beating us [last year] played a huge factor in the way we came out tonight," said Golden Knights Coach Jim Bonds, whose team lost four in a row last year beginning with the Wildcats loss. "Especially the defense, they went up and down the field on us last year. It's night and day from a year ago."
Coming into Friday, the game was a matchup of top-10, undefeated teams, with St. Francis (4-0) ranked fifth in the CIF Southern Section Western Division and West Ranch (4-1) ranked seventh in the Northern Division.
But after a 21-point second quarter led to a 28-0 halftime edge, the outcome was hardly in doubt.
"I'm just very happy with where our defense is," said Bonds, whose team held West Ranch standout running back Jeff Coprich to 47 yards in 12 carries after he rushed for more than 400 in his first four. "I was a little nervous when Coprich broke that first 13-yarder. If you let a guy like him get going, it's a completely different game."
But Coprich never got going, though the St. Francis offense did, led by running back Austin De Los Santos, who had 94 yards and a touchdown in 17 carries. Quarterback Jared Lebowitz passed for 169 yards and two scores on 10-of-20 passing, including a 57-yard scoring pass to Travis Talianko that made it 21-0 in the second quarter. Lebowitz also added a one-yard scoring run that culminated the second quarter scoring binge.
Some dropped passes and penalties stymied the Golden Knights offense early, but McAleenan said it was simply the same factor that had the defense playing so well.
"We were all just pumped up and we settled down," he said.
Despite holding West Ranch to 36 total yards and two first downs in the first quarter and starting three of their four opening-period drives in West Ranch territory, St. Francis had just a 7-0 lead at stanza's end.
De Los Santos, who had 57 yards on nine carries in the quarter, scored on a seven-yard run up the right side for game's first score with 6:57 to go in the quarter.
It was the play of McAleenan that sparked the Knights' onslaught.
"He's just a no-nonsense guy," Bonds said. "Just a quiet leader."
The Golden Knights offense took over on the West Ranch 40 after McAleenan recovered a fumbled snap. Then, four plays later, McAleenan hauled in a big 19-yard grab over the middle, taking on a big hit from the safety in the process. It was the first completion for St. Francis after Lebowitz' first two passes had been dropped. Two plays later, De Los Santos scored.
A big third-down sack by McAleenan in the second quarter led to a West Ranch three-and-out that began the Golden Knights' second-quarter surge.
St. Francis scored on all three of its second-quarter drives, beginning with a three-yard plunge from sophomore running back Austin Finton with 8:04 to go. It was set up by a leaping 26-yard catch by Christian Hess.
A Lebowitz pass over the middle to Talianko was turned into an untouched sprint to the end zone for a score with 5:02 left in the half and Lebowitz snuck in from a yard out on a fourth down with 1:02 left.
Lebowitz hit Jeff Garavaglia on a 17-yard score in the third quarter to round out the scoring.
The win was all the more impressive considering St. Francis was without four starters — linebacker Luke Anderson, defensive end Griffin Longo, offensive lineman Dimitri Starzak and receiver/defensive back Parker Nieves, who was lost for the season.
Next week, St. Francis hosts a Paso Robles squad that it also lost to a year ago.
Said Bonds: "Obviously, when you lose, that's gives you a little more motivation."