A season ago at this time, St. Francis High’s football team was brimming with fresh faces and uncertainty.
With just three returning starters, the inexperienced crop of Golden Knights incurred a rocky season characterized by close losses that culminated in a 4-7 campaign with a one-win Mission League showing that just barely squeezed them into the CIF Southern Section Western Division playoffs.
This time around, there’s plenty more experience, but still some difficult departures to overcome and questions to be answered.
“Honestly, I’ve tried to not bring [last season] up. One of the beautiful things about this profession is every year the makeup of the team is brand new,” St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds said. “As a staff, we’re trying not to harp on the mistakes we made last year, cause they know.
“It’s easy to say we could’ve won or we should’ve, but we didn’t.”
While Bonds and his staff aren’t making last year’s struggles a focal point, it’s clear his Golden Knights are very much concentrated on leaving their own mark while erasing the bitter taste of last season.
“This is St. Francis football; 4-7 is a disappointing year and I think we have a chip on our shoulder,” senior offensive/defensive lineman Trevor Provencio said, “because last year we know we could’ve done so much better and this year, we know we’ll be better than 4-7.”
Provencio is at the center of an offensive line that might well be the strength of the team, boasting three returning starters and hopeful of keying an offensive rife with potential in the skill positions.
“Just a lot of experience on our line,” said senior running back/cornerback Joe Mudie. “I think that’s the strongest part of our offense. That’s where it all starts.”
St. Francis will open up on the road Friday at Chino in the hopes of starting the season on the right note, a mantra very much at the forefront for the Golden Knights. They had four defeats come via seven points or less in 2012 and dictating the tempo of the game and limiting the times they play from behind might well be keys to those close losses turning into close wins.
“That’s definitely something we’ve emphasized is getting off to a faster start in games,” Bonds said. “We know we can play with every team on our schedule. We need to get out fast so we dictate the tempo. We can’t let the other team dictate the tempo.”
The aforementioned schedule will once more be the most daunting of any area team, as the Golden Knights face heavyweights La Mirada and Monrovia, among others, during their nonleague slate before beginning the arduous gauntlet that is Mission League play. Serra, which won the CIF Southern Section Western Division title ahead of claiming a state championship, defeated Chaminade in the division title game. Many are predicting the two league heavies to play twice this season again, as Serra is ranked No. 1 in the division with Chaminade at No. 2. League foes Cathedral and Harvard-Westlake are No. 6 and 8, respectively, while St. Francis checks in at No. 9.
“It’s a lot of hype going into the Mission League hearing about those teams. Those are some really good teams,” Mudie said. “We have our eyes set on winning the Mission League and we know how tough it’s gonna be.”
Mudie will look for running room behind and in between an offensive line that features returning starters Provencio (senior center, 6-foot-2, 290 pounds), Joe Loubier (senior left tackle, 6-5, 260) and Austin Finton (senior left guard, 6-1, 240). On the right side, senior Tyler Laskey (6-3, 200), who also has starting experience carried over from last year, will start at guard, while senior Israel Gutierrez (6-3, 280), a basketball player, makes his return to the gridiron to shore up the right tackle spot.
Mudie will do his best to capitalize on the experience provided by the O-line, as the senior back hopes to stay healthy after a season in which he missed a good portion of time due to injuries. Mudie had five total touchdowns and 385 total yards a season ago. He split time as a receiver, but will concentrate on running back this time around, with the backfield corps rounded out by junior Ross Niederhaus and sophomore Areg Nazarian.
The biggest void to fill for St. Francis is under center, as Jared Lebowitz, the All-Area Football Player of the Year and UNLV commit, graduated. In his place steps senior Ty Gangi.
“He had a year last year to sit and watch and that’s not always fun. But it’s a good way to learn and Ty is a cerebral guy,” said Bonds, who has been more than pleased with Gangi’s work and performance in the summer. “He’s stepped in like a seasoned guy. He’s gonna surprise some people with his legs, but he’s also an accurate passer.”
Gangi has not only stepped into the starting role, but a leadership one, as well, as he’s joined by Kevin Maloof, Mudie and Provencio as the team captains — the Golden Knights. And after a season holding a clipboard, Gangi is ready to take the reins of the offense.
“I’m definitely really excited to get on the field and play,” Gangi said.
Gangi will have an All-Mission League and All-Area target in John Carroll, who hauled in 39 balls for 414 yards and four scores in his sophomore debut.
“I think he’s gonna have a huge season,” Bonds said of Carroll. “Talk about a knack for getting open and he has great hands.”
Carroll will line up as St. Francis’ ‘X,’ which is often essentially a tight end, but he’ll also line up in the slot and as an H-back.
Elsewhere in the receiving corps, Evan Crawford, who started last season, elected to concentrate on basketball, but his brother Dylan, a sophomore, looks to be brimming with potential, as Bonds said the wideout has good football knowledge and great athletic ability.
Matt Gonzalez will return in the slot after starting last year and will likely rotate with Maloof, who had plenty of starts a season ago, as well. Dylan Sweet and Mason Williams will see time at split end and wideout, as well, with Maloof and Williams likely offering the biggest speed threats.
However, Williams and Maloof are also starting in the defensive backfield, as the Golden Knights have more than their share of two-way starters.
“In a perfect world, we’d have 11 guys that start on offense and 11 that start on defense, but we’ll count on our strength and conditioning,” Bonds said. “I think we’re pretty smart about refining.”
Thus, Williams’ priorities will lie on defense, while Mudie’s will sit with the offense. For others, though, where they will be needed most is to be determined.
For instance, Finton is set to start at nose tackle in St. Francis’ 4-3 defense and will platoon with Provencio.
“It’s just a part of our identity,” Provencio said of playing both ways. “We prepare for that because we go as hard as we can in practice.”
Elsewhere on the line, Don Pontrelli will start at defensive tackle, with Brodie Felkel starting on one end and also handling the punting duties and getting reps at tight end. Manning the strong side at defensive end will be returning starter Andy Cesta.
“I think a guy that’s really gonna show up and be impactful is Andy Cesta,” said Bonds of the returning starter who had 45 tackles, five for a loss and a sack in his sophomore season.
Senior Patrick McGoldrick (60 tackles last season) will lead a group of returning starters at linebacker with senior Michael Weber (49 tackles) and junior Matt Bayle (41 tackles) on the outside and McGoldrick in the middle.
In the defensive backfield, all but one DB is a two-way starter with Williams and Mudie at the corners, Maloof at one safety spot and sophomore Avery Williams, Mason’s younger brother, at the other.
And so the Golden Knights embark on another season, with more experience this time around and, perhaps, more to prove.
“It’s a new year, new team,” Maloof said. “We seem more close knit this year than last year. All these guys have the same goal, same mindset.”
Added Mudie: “Last year is gonna be a chip on our shoulder. We’re gonna remember it, but we’re not gonna dwell on it.”