Top seed Lompoc too strong for St. Francis

LOMPOC — Already faced with the daunting task of taking down a No. 1 seed with a 30-game winning streak, consecutive division titles in its back pocket and an overwhelming home field advantage, the St. Francis High football team’s chances of an upset of Lompoc on Friday night got inherently worse just 12 seconds into the game when Braves kick returner Taylor Cornejo streaked 90 yards for a score.

But as bad a start as it was to the game for the Golden Knights, it was the second-half onset that truly was the turning point. St. Francis, trailing by 14, could do nothing offensively on the first drive and then allowed a 55-yard scoring run by Lompoc’s Nikko Hayes, one of a cavalcade of talented backs who poured it on in the second half, as the Braves ran away with a 42-7 victory in the opening round of the CIF Southern Section Western Division playoffs.

“They kept pressing, it’s a great team. You gotta give them credit,” said St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds, whose team finished its season at 4-7 after receiving an at-large bid into the playoffs out of the Mission League. “They got horses.”

Lompoc (11-0), the Los Padres League champion, rushed for 238 of its 289 total yards with three runners gaining more than 50 yards behind a mammoth offensive line that looked to wear down the undersized Golden Knights.

“They were able to push us around up front with their size,” Bonds said.

Averaging 45 points a game coming into Friday’s game, the Braves have been an offensive juggernaut, but Bonds was more impressed with the defense, which was big, mean and nasty and had allowed less than seven points per game coming in and never given up more than 14 in a contest.

“I was probably more impressed with their size and skill on defense,” said Bonds, whose offense totaled just 179 yards. “It was hard to find holes in that defense.”

Cornejo found a hole up the right sideline to open the game with his return for a score. Following the return and a St. Francis punt, Lompoc flexed its muscle on its first offensive drive. Running back Lavon Coleman (17 carries for 83 yards and two touchdowns) capped a methodical eight-play, 56-yard march with a five-yard touchdown for a 14-0 lead with 6:11 to go in the first quarter.

Down, 14-0, St. Francis quarterback Jared Lebowitz connected with tight end John Carroll on a five-yard, play-action scoring pass to cut the lead in half with 1:20 to play in the first.

Lompoc would answer right back, though, as Coleman burst through the left side for a 46-yard touchdown run, breaking through a pair of would-be tacklers before out-sprinting the St. Francis defense to pay dirt.

A missed 50-yard Mark Verso field goal was the closest the Golden Knights would get to scoring again in the first half — and in the game. But the St. Francis defense held for the rest of the opening half.

Needing to seize momentum in a relatively close game at that point, though, the Golden Knights sputtered on the opening second-half drive and punted. Three plays later, Hayes (eight carries for 78 yards and score) slipped up the gut for a 55-yard backbreaking, momentum-taking score.

“We didn’t get any points, they go on a short field and score, now it’s 28-7,” Bonds said. “We couldn’t get a rally and score.”

And Hayes’ score continued what would end up being a 28-point run to end the game for Lompoc and 21 unanswered in a truly dominant second half.

St. Francis had 139 yards on offense in the first half, but just 40 in the second.

Lebowitz finished 15 of 34 for 137 yards for a touchdown and an interception that was returned for a score late in the game — which saw the Braves’ starters in for the duration and throwing the ball with a running clock and a 35-point lead. The All-Area senior quarterback was sacked three times and pressured constantly.

“We thought we could throw the ball,” Bonds said. “The issue was having time to throw.”

Running back Daniel Kawamura had 50 yards in nine carries, while receiver Evan Crawford hauled in six catches for 84 yards.

Having just two players who began last season starting on this year’s team, many saw 2012 as a rebuilding year for St. Francis. Bonds was not one of them, though. Now however, he admitted a more experienced team will take the field next year, though the Golden Knights do incur some tough losses, such as defensive end Cole Ramseyer, center Matt Kubly and Lebowitz, to name a few.

“I never said that with this group, that it’s a rebuilding,” Bonds said. “But, if there is a silver lining, we gained some experience and we got a lot of young guys a chance to play a playoff game. But losing Jared Lebowitz is gonna be tough, cause he’s a stud.”

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