SANTA MARIA — Moments before the second half of his team’s nonleague nailbiter on Friday night, St. Francis High Coach Jim Bonds told his team, “We’ll learn a lot about ourselves right here.”
A week removed from a lopsided victory over an overmatched Arcadia squad, the Golden Knights found themselves in a tie ballgame with host Righetti, seventh-ranked in the CIF Southern Section Northern Division and boasting a huge size advantage up front.
But it was the Golden Knights who preserved late, as the Jared Lebowitz-led offense found its rhythm and the defense held tough when it needed to most en route to a 29-22 win over the host Warriors to move St. Francis to 2-0 on the season.
“It was two different halves execution-wise. We had a lot of things open in the first half, we were just out of sync,” said Bonds, who got a stellar performance from Lebowitz, who completed 17 of 27 passes for 259 yards and three touchdowns. “I thought these guys came up huge in the second half. Jared made some really good throws and the offensive line opened up some holes. And Daniel Kawamura and Joe Mudie are a nice tandem.”
Lebowitz threw a pair of second-half scores to Mudie, a running back/receiver, while fullback Austin Finton’s one-yard run through a giant hole in the fourth quarter held as the game-winner, as St. Francis held off a Righetti surge for the victory.
“I learned a lot tonight,” said Bonds of his team’s character and ability. “We all learned a lot about ourselves as players and coaches.
“That’s gonna go a long way.”
Kawamura eclipsed the century mark for the second week in the row, rushing for 108 yards in 14 carries, going for 95 yards on nine carries in the second half for St. Francis, which is No. 4 in the Western Division. Mudie was held to seven yards on the ground, but hauled in six catches for 96 yards and two touchdowns.
“First half, everything was there, we just weren’t connecting,” said Lebowitz, who was 11 for 14 for 138 yards in the final 24 minutes. “Second half, we just stuck to our guns, we had a good game plan, we just executed.”
Just as big a play as either of their touchdown hookups was Lebowitz’ 12-yard connection to Mudie on third and 11 that enabled St. Francis to run out the clock. It came three plays after Matt Gonzalez recovered an onside kick by Righetti (1-2).
“We were playing for the win,” said Bonds of the gamble to throw the ball on third and 11, as Righetti had just spent its last timeout.
The game ended and began in dramatic fashion.
With an offensive line that had a mammoth size advantage over St. Francis’ defensive line, Righetti marched down the field on the opening drive, but St. Francis dug deep and was able to hold on fourth and one from its own one-yard line to end the drive.
“We were into it in the beginning and it showed our defense was ready,” said Mudie, also a cornerback.
In a colossal shift of momentum, St. Francis then drove 99 yards for an 8-0 lead, albeit 63 came on Tommy Scheper’s touchdown grab as he was wide open over the middle. Lebowitz then connected with John Carroll in the back of the end zone for a two-point conversion after Righetti had jumped offsides.
“We knew what we wanted to exploit and we did,” said Lebowitz, who was four of five on the drive for 89 yards, with Scheper, who finished with four catches for 92 yards, hauling in three grabs for 81 yards on the drive.
St. Francis’ offense went cold after the initial score, as its run game was bottled up and the passing game went awry. Lebowitz completed just two of seven passes after the touchdown. A 30-yard completion to Mudie served as the only other first down of the first half for the Golden Knights after they converted three on their first drive with errant throws and dropped passes plaguing them.
The offensive dry spell came as Righetti evened the game when running back Colin Cooper, who had 128 yards rushing in 14 carries, ran 18 yards for a touchdown. He looked to be stopped at the 12, but emerged off a pile untouched. The subsequent conversion tied the game.
But out of intermission, St. Francis drove right down to take a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Lebowitz went five for six on the drive for 44 yards, culminating with a six-yard scoring pass over the middle to Mudie. Kawamura popped off runs of nine and 11 yards, the biggest for St. Francis of the game up to that point, as the line, which pass-blocked splendidly all game, began to open holes in the run game, as well.
With a 15-8 lead, St. Francis put itself up by two touchdowns when Mudie was left wide open for a 33-yard scoring catch — set up by a 42-yard Kawamura run — on the Golden Knights’ ensuing possession with 28 seconds to go in the third quarter. The drive came to be after the defense held the Warriors on fourth and one yet again, this time from the St. Francis 15.
Righetti cut the lead to 22-12 on its next drive, but once more St. Francis answered with Finton’s touchdown. It was keyed by a clutch nine-yard catch from Carroll over the middle on third and seven.
With just 4:42 to go, Righetti got the break it needed when Mudie was called on a controversial pass interference play on third and 10. The Righetti receiver was trailing Mudie and initiated contact, but a late flag was called against Mudie. The next play, quarterback Troy Prober connected for a 35-yard touchdown to cut the game to its final score.
Of course, an onside kick recovery later and one final third-down conversion and St. Francis had its character-building victory.
Said Lebowitz: “We knew we had to come up big.”