LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — In front of a jampacked homecoming faithful, the St. Francis High football team went from disaster to delirium.
On the strength of the fortuitous right foot of Billy McCreary, the Golden Knights culminated a 10-point, fourth-quarter comeback to defeat Harvard-Westlake, 23-20, when McCreary booted a 37-yard field goal with two seconds left to lift his team to victory in the Mission League opener for both teams.
“We, came away with the victory — and it was amazing,” said McCreary, who also had a game-tying 29-yard kick in the fourth and a 32-yard field goal in the first half before the Wolverines scored 20 straight points to take a 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter.
With the win, the Golden Knights, ranked fourth in the CIF Southern Section Western Division and rife with league title hopes, improved to 6-0, while Harvard-Westlake dropped to 4-2.
“I gotta tip my hat to Harvard-Westlake,” said St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds, whose team got touchdown runs from Austin De Los Santos and Jared Lebowitz. “For us to be down 10 points in the second half and [to come back] shows a lot of character.
“I'm very proud of our guys for never giving up.”
The game-winning drive came to be when St. Francis took over with just 44 seconds on its own 13, but the drive began with a 22-yard De Los Santos run. A Christian Hess run two plays later notched 23 yards before a completion to Travis Talianko - who had seven catches for 81 yards - for 10 yards and a subsequent Lebowitz run for 13 yards set up McCreary's heroics.
Harvard-Westlake quarterback Chad Kanoff had three total touchdowns and threw for 323 yards on 25 of 40 completions, while receiver Clinton Hooks caught 14 balls for 167 yards and a touchdown out of the Wolverines' no-huddle, spread offense.
“It's a tough offense to prepare for,” Bonds said.
But the St. Francis defense, the catalyst in large part for the Golden Knights' undefeated start, was still stingy, forcing three turnovers, as Talianko and Jose Padilla had fumble recoveries and Raul Castillo had an interception.
“Our defense came up big again,” said Bonds of an effort that held down a Wolverines offense that had previously eclipsed the 30-point mark four times and 40 points three times.
No play was perhaps as big as Padilla's fumble recovery after a Matt Casciani sack forced the ball loose. The Golden Knights then marched 69 yards to set up McCreary's 29-yarder with 3:16 left to tie the game at 20.
Lebowitz, who rushed for 40 yards in 10 carries and passed for 253 yards on 18 of 37 passing, ran in from 11 yards out with 10:08 to go in the game to bring the score to 20-17 and ignite the comeback.
De Los Santos, who had 84 yards in 16 carries, scored from 12 yards out in the first quarter, but the offense went largely stagnant thereafter with a slew of turnovers, dropped balls and penalties causing havoc.
Harvard-Westlake's score in the second quarter by Hooks was the first given up by the Golden Knights' defense since the third quarter of St. Francis' win over Venice three weeks prior.
In the end, though, the Golden Knights offense was good enough to set up the steady foot of McCreary.
“I love all my guys,” said McCreary of his teammates. “They just calmed me down and told me just like practice. ... Concentrate on your mechanics and focus.”
And as soon as he kicked, “I felt it was good,” McCreary said.