VALENCIA — Just 13 seconds into Friday night’s nonleague football game, St. Francis High held an eight-point lead over host West Ranch thanks to a first-play 65-yard score and a subsequent two-point conversion.
Following his 65-yard touchdown strike to Tommy Scheper, Golden Knights quarterback Jared Lebowitz told his team to keep it going and that it was just one play.
His words of wisdom seemed to fall on deaf ears.
What ensued was hardly a consistent effort by St. Francis. Instead, it was a torrid start, followed by a West Ranch revival and fight to the finish that featured a string of 23 unanswered points by the host Wildcats until a 17-point counter by the Golden Knights closed out their nailbiting 38-30 victory over West Ranch at Valencia High.
“I always get nervous after a start like that, believe it our not,” said St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds, whose team built a 14-0 first-quarter lead only to fall behind, 20-14, before a Lebowitz-led comeback paved the way to a 3-1 start to the season for the fourth-ranked team in the CIF Southern Section Western Division. “You kinda relax and I was on the sideline saying don’t relax, keep the pressure on. And it seemed like we relaxed a little.”
Lebowitz was also trying to fire his team up after hitting Scheper for the score.
“I was trying, I was trying,” Lebowitz said. “The first drive, everybody’s amped. We just gotta keep it up.”
Down, 23-14, after West Ranch opened the second half with a field goal, St. Francis began its comeback, scoring on all four of its second-half possessions, while the defense, seemingly on the ropes previously, mounted a fourth-quarter shutout.
“It was hard for us in the first half, but we did bounce back in the second half,” said St. Francis senior defensive end Cole Ramseyer, who had two sacks and forced a fumble.
Lebowitz finished the day with 308 yards passing, completing 16 of 32 passes for two touchdowns and one interception, while also rushing for 40 yards — including a 13-yard touchdown — in five carries. His passing numbers were a bit deceiving though, as the Golden Knights receivers dropped at least a half-dozen passes, with Lebowitz’ interception also going through a teammate’s grasp.
“We had several dropped passes,” Bonds said. “We had a couple that could’ve been touchdown passes. And it was contagious.”
Alas, when all was said and done, St. Francis was able to rebound after a heartbreaking 28-21 loss to La Mirada the week before, and send West Ranch (1-4) down to defeat on its homecoming — which was consequently the Golden Knights’ third straight road game.
“It’s good to show people we could come back after a loss,” Ramseyer said.
At the onset, it looked like the Golden Knights were bouncing back to the tune of a rout.
Lebowitz, on the first play from scrimmage, hit Scheper on a slant and the senior receiver slipped a tackle and sprinted the rest of the way for a 65-yard score. John Carroll then hauled in a two-point conversion pass for an 8-0 lead with 11:47 to go in the first quarter and all was great for the Golden Knights.
“Play making,” said Lebowitz of the touchdown and the abilities of Scheper, who hauled in four passes for 117 yards. “Playmakers make plays.”
Three plays later, Ramseyer, who looked to be held on nearly every play much to the chagrin of a vocal Bonds, broke loose for a blindside sack that put the ball on the ground. Andy Cesta recovered at the Wildcats’ 17, and three plays later, a Mark Verso 31-yard field goal made it 11-0.
The avalanche of St. Francis momentum began to wane, but, still the Golden Knights collected a 14-0 lead late in the first on another Verso field goal, this time from 28 yards out. He would make three on the night, including a 42-yarder in the second half.
But following the second field goal, West Ranch finally struck back. Having beat the Golden Knights secondary in man coverage before but having misfired, the Wildcats hit pay dirt when receiver Rawston Redick ran under a Garrit Mouw bomb for a 79-yard touchdown and a 14-7 score. It was the first of 20 unanswered points for West Ranch to end the first half. It was also the first catch for Redick in a game in which he would haul in eight receptions for 167 yards and two scores. Mouw finished with 230 yards through the air and the Wildcats totaled 430 yards of offense.
“He’s a fast kid, he’s a good player,” said Bonds of Redick. “It was a rough second quarter.”
Looking for a wake-up call at halftime, St. Francis instead saw more West Ranch offense, as running back Mark Collins busted through the right side for a 52-yard gain on the first drive of the second half. The Golden Knights buckled down, however, and held the Wildcats to a field goal, falling behind, 23-14, with 9:25 to play in the third quarter.
“That was huge,” Bonds said. “We needed some stops out of our defense. For them to plant their feet in the ground and hold them to a field goal was big.”
St. Francis was still sputtering on the ensuing drive, though, as three straight dropped passes began its drive. But a savage hit taken by Joe Mudie was whistled as a personal foul on a third-and-10 play. Not long after on another third-and-long play, Lebowitz rolled right and found running back Daniel Kawamura behind coverage along the right sideline for a 51-yard touchdown reception and a 23-20 score.
“I was real happy with Daniel Kawamura,” Bonds said. “He’s been a great player for us early in the season.”
Thereafter, the St. Francis offense began rolling again and rarely slowed.
West Ranch scored on a 12-play, 80-yard drive to follow the Kawamura score, but the Golden Knights would answer on both sides of the ball.
Verso’s last field goal cut the score to 30-24 before the defense got its first second-half stop.
Then, having rushed for only 47 yards as a team in 12 carries up to that point, St. Francis took over with 8:51 left in the game on the West Ranch 43. Lebowitz ran for seven yards before Kawamura doubled his previous rushing total with a 23-yard gain. On the next play, Lebowitz ran 13 yards into the end zone before a Verso extra point gave St. Francis a 31-30 lead.
Kawamura finished with 68 yards in 14 carries, with 48 coming on nine second-half carries.
Then, defensive back Danny Ursitti came up clutch, leaping for an interception on West Ranch’s ensuing drive and giving the Golden Knights the ball back with 7:09 to play on their own 47.
A steady dose of Kawamura and a big-time third-and-nine conversion when Lebowitz hit Kevin Maloof for a 24-yard gain, led to a one-yard touchdown run by Zachery Washington.
West Ranch had one final chance with 3:21 to go and 80 yards to march. But once again, St. Francis bent but did not break. Mouw completed an eight-yard pass to the 13 on second and long, but was leveled by Ramseyer on the throw. With the clock ticking down, Mouw tried to spike the ball, but bobbled it and was chased down by linebacker Nathan Clark to end the game.
“I had no idea how we would respond,” said Lebowitz of his team coming back from last week’s loss. “This team is scrappy.”