A whole new St. Francis football

When Jared Lebowitz transferred to St. Francis High from Vermont ahead of his junior season, he gained a starting spot on a team rife with leadership and experience.

As the season began, Lebowitz and fellow junior Matt Kubly, his center, were the only non-seniors penciled in to start for Golden Knights.

Now, as the 2012 football season beckons, times have most assuredly changed.

"I've definitely got the polar-opposite experience," said Lebowitz, who despite playing quarterback, wasn't thrust in a leadership role, as he was surrounded by seniors with multiple seasons starting. "Everyone knew the system [last year], besides me. Now only a few people know the system coming in."

Indeed, the prevailing storyline for St. Francis leading into its season opener on Friday at home against Arcadia is how the Golden Knights will contend with such a massive turnover caused simply by graduation.

Lebowitz returns after a season in which he was an All-Mission League and All-Area second-team selection who threw for 2,234 yards and 21 touchdowns, aiding mightily in the Golden Knights' ascent to a 9-3 record and a quarterfinal appearance in the CIF Southern Section Western Division playoffs after a third-place finish in the ultra-competitive Mission League. But, Lebowitz, along with Kubly and senior defensive end Cole Ramseyer are the only true returning starters from a season ago, helped a bit by a smattering of starting experience here and there from others.

Overall, St. Francis is a team that's both young and inexperienced, but it hasn't curtailed any expectations.

"We're gonna be young, but we're gonna play hard," said senior safety Joe Velladao. "We're ready to go and we have something to prove. Just because we lost 20 seniors doesn't mean we're not going to have a successful year and we're gonna play with that chip on our shoulder. People are gonna keep saying this is a rebuilding year and we don't have rebuilding years at St. Francis. This is St. Francis football and we're going to be successful."

Velladao, who started a pair of games at linebacker, and Ramseyer, who started the final 11 games at end are the most experienced of a defensive bunch that boasted the likes of Travis Talianko, Ryan McAleenan, Luke Anderson and Tyler Marona last season, but is, for the most part, getting its first starting experience in St. Francis' trademark 4-3 defense under coordinator Mark Gibbons.

"We're young with a lot of juniors starting and a lot of the seniors didn't get to play last season," St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds said. "It's a green team, for sure."

Ramseyer, who had six sacks last season, will lead a defensive line that's set to see sophomore Andy Cesta at the opposite end with senior Gordon Grbavac starting at defensive tackle and Jared Soohoo, a junior, at the nose.

"Cole ended up having an outstanding year for us," said Bonds of Ramseyer, who took over after the first week for an injured Griffin Longo. "We're expecting him to have a great season and anchor the defensive line."

A hallmark of the Golden Knights' defensive prowess the last few seasons was their linebacking corps, which featured an experienced cast. But this season, led by junior Patrick McGoldrick in the middle with junior Marco Tinoco and senior Nate Clark on the outside, it's a fresh-faced group.

It's much the same in the secondary, as Velladao and junior Michael Weber will hold down the safety spots, while junior Daniel Ursitti and Jordan Lynch, a senior, are slotted at the corners.

Offensively, Lebowitz enters the season with high hopes and his share of hype. Thus far, Bonds said he's improved leaps and bounds.

"He looks more confident, he looks bigger and stronger," said Bonds, who said stepping up into a leadership role will be just as pivotal as stepping up into the pocket for Lebowitz. "He's gonna have to show a lot of the guys the way. He's one of the only guys on that side of the ball with any experience. I have every confidence he'll do that."

Another Golden Knight with his share of expectation is junior Joe Mudie, who had 252 total yards in limited playing time as a sophomore.

"We expect big things of out Joe," Bonds said. "He's just got excellent hands, he's got good vision for the ball, he's just got a knack for the game."

Mudie will get looks at running back and in the slot.

"We're trying to be cognizant of running him ragged," Bonds said.

With Mudie in the slot, senior Daniel Kawamura looks to be the ball carrier of choice.

With Bonds' offense full of formations, plenty of receivers will see playing time and, thus far, Lebowitz has been spreading the wealth.

"Jared's done a nice job of spreading the ball around," Bonds said, "but if we had to say who the No. 1 is, it would definitely be Tommy [Scheper]."

Scheper is the team's leading returning receiver, but still that entails just 13 catches for 171 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Nonetheless, Scheper has impressed Bonds thus far with his possession skills, his route running and intelligence.

Sophomore John Carroll, the younger brother of former St. Francis standout offensive tackle Patrick Carroll, has made some noise thus far as a pass-catching tight end.

"I think he can be a big-time player for us," said Bonds, who added junior Matt Gonzalez should also see reps there.

Juniors Evan Crawford and Kevin Maloof and Grbavac should also see time at various receiver positions. In Grbavac's case, Bonds said his staff has done its best to limit two-way players this season with the learning curve many of the players have undertaken.

"It's been a little difficult because we run complicated schemes," Kubly said. "It's difficult, but the guys are getting it."

Kubly leads an offensive line unit that could be the biggest key to St. Francis' offensive success, along with being the biggest question mark.

"It all starts with the line. When the protection is good, the whole team does well," Lebowitz said. "Kubly is the absolute anchor of the line. He knows what everybody has to do."

Trevor Provencio, a junior, will start at left tackle after getting some starting experience at left guard last season, while junior Joe Loubier will get the nod at right tackle. At the guard positions come two interesting transformations.

A fullback as a sophomore, junior Austin Finton will make the transfer to left guard, while Eddie Colton, formerly a linebacker and receiver, will make the switch to right guard as a junior.

"It's gonna be a lot of baptism by fire for a lot of these kids," said Bonds, whose kicking duties will be handled by senior soccer standout Mark Verso, while the punting will go to Forrest Ascarrunz.

Not making it any easier will be a daunting nonleague schedule boasting the likes of Monrovia and La Mirada, before St. Francis, ranked fifth in the CIF Southern Section Western Division poll, enters play in a Mission League in which five of the six teams are ranked in the division's top 10.

"There's definitely a lot more weight on our shoulders, but we're all very positive," Velladao said. "There's a lot more responsibility we have to undertake, especially as a senior class."

With a dearth of experience and plenty of youth accompanied by a formidable schedule, Bonds is well aware that nothing's going to come easy for these Golden Knights.

"We pride ourselves on playing smart football, being disciplined and being better conditioned," Bonds said. "We're gonna have to show all three every week if we want to make it back to playoffs."

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