UPLAND — No matter the final standing at the conclusion of Mission League play and no matter the CIF Southern Section Division I opponent, in recent seasons, St. Francis High’s boys’ soccer team has made a habit of playoff histrionics and postseason magic.
It’s a trend that’s apparently maintained, as a chilly evening in Upland was further evidence to the roller-coaster ride that is the Golden Knights in the playoffs.
Seemingly on the wrong end of second-half comebacks all season long, St. Francis rallied from a two-goal halftime deficit with four second-half goals, including the game-winner by junior midfielder Brookes Treidler with just over five minutes remaining, as the Golden Knights upset Upland, 4-3, in the first round.
“We can’t make it easy,” joked St. Francis Coach Glen Appels, whose Golden Knights (8-8-8) will host Ventura, a 4-2 winner over Agoura, on Tuesday in the second round. “Down, 2-0, on the road, a weaker-willed team would’ve been done, but we kept fighting. We didn’t quit.”
St. Francis fell behind, 2-0, with first-half goals by Bryan Morrison and Andrew Lee less than four minutes apart for Upland (15-7-2) — the Baseline League champion — but it was a stunning span in which the Golden Knights scored three goals in six minutes in the second half that turned the game.
“The momentum follows you after the goals,” said St. Francis senior forward Billy McCreary, who had a pair of goals during the comeback. “That’s definitely what happened.”
After St. Francis went up, 3-2, a stunned Highlanders squad was able to rebound with a Mohammad Khattab goal with 17 minutes remaining, but it only set the stage for Treidler.
A throw-in by Derek Bell into the mouth of the goal was scooted around before an Upland defender inadvertently kicked it left to an unmarked Treidler on the far side, who booted in the winning goal.
“I was all alone inside the six and I knew I wouldn’t miss from there,” Treidler said.
Last season, St. Francis took second in the Mission League and made a run to the quarterfinals behind a one-goal first-round victory and a subsequent upset of fourth-seeded Ventura. In the 2009-10 season, the Golden Knights were the fourth-place team out of league and upended the third seed before falling in the second round in overtime. And there was the magical 2009 run in which the fourth-place Golden Knights advanced to the semifinals and later won the program’s only CIF Southern California Division II Regional Championship.
Thus, playoff dramatics are nothing new for St. Francis, but Thursday’s game was still one to remember.
“It’s not a good feeling [being down by two goals], but they say the most dangerous lead in soccer is 2-0, because you score once and then the momentum changes. That’s really what happened,” Treidler said. “That’s one of the most exciting things in soccer is to score that many goals like that. We knew we had four or five goals in the second half in us and that’s exactly what happened.”
And it was the gutsy play of senior midfielder Austin Frank that started the comeback. Frank got the start, but played just 10 minutes before leaving with a foot injury. He would return in the second half, though, and not long after returning made a game-changing play. A well-placed Billy Abdallah throw-in went over a group of Highlanders defenders and found Frank, who promptly carried the ball forward and shot low inside the near post to bring the score to 2-1 with just under 29 minutes to play.
“Austin’s playing hurt and he’s limited in what he can do,” Appels said. “But he has such great heart and he’s inspiring.”
An inspired St. Francis broke out into a delirium roughly five minutes later when senior midfielder Eric Bocanegra — who Appels said played the game of his season — sent a beautiful ball up the near sideline to senior Matt Laterza. A perfect Laterza cross found McCreary on the right side, who was alone against the goalie, and drilled the equalizer.
Just a minute later, Bocanegra played a ball up that the goalie went for, but lost possession of with McCreary challenging. McCreary collected the loose ball and placed in a shot inside the far post of an open net for the go-ahead score.
“Billy McCreary’s a great athlete and we’ve been waiting all year for him to break out,” said Appels of McCreary, who was an All-CIF kicker/defensive back in football. “Today was his day.”
Upland, which drew two yellow cards in the second half on physical fouls, became increasingly physical after the scoring barrage, and used a corner to score past goalie Luca Coppola, who faced 19 shots and made eight saves.
But by then, St. Francis’ momentum and play was unrelenting. The drama didn’t cease after Treidler’s goal, either, as Upland had three more shots, including a point-blank attempt that went over the goal and two that were saved by Coppola. Abdallah almost put the game away with a long shot that was tipped at the crossbar as the game went six minutes into extra time.
It only served to delay the Golden Knights’ celebration of another dramatic playoff chapter, however.
“They’re still wearing St. Francis across the front,” said Appels of his Golden Knights continuing the program’s postseason tradition.
Added McCreary: “It’s a whole new season and that’s the attitude we’ve taken.”