Three games into the season and the St. Francis High football team was still waiting for its first real challenge. It finally arrived in the form of visiting Damien.
Even so, the scoreboard didn’t show the Golden Knights were tested Friday night at Friedman Field. At times, St. Francis’ offense sputtered, but its defense was always there to help anchor a 34-16 nonleague victory over the visiting Spartans.
“It was a hard-fought game, I don’t know how indicative the score is of the battle we had out there tonight,” St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds said.
“It’s good for it to be a close game like that and to be able to come out on top. We battled through some adversity.”
St. Francis (4-0) held a 20-6 halftime lead, but watched it dwindle down to four with 14 minutes left to play in the game. Offensively, the Knights slowed down considerably in the second half and were held to a fumble and three punts in their first four possessions after the break.
As a result, Damien (2-2) pulled to within 20-16 with two minutes left in the third quarter on a 40-yard field goal from Tristan Vizcaino, who also connected on 31- and 35-yard kicks in the first half.
St. Francis mounted a 10-play drive in response, but it stalled at Damien’s 38 and forced a punt that went for a touchback and gave the Spartans a chance to take their first lead since they led, 3-0, in the opening quarter.
Damien wound up going backward, thanks to St. Francis defensive lineman Marko Tinco. On second-and-nine, the senior sacked the Spartan quarterback for a nine-yard loss at the 12. He followed that with another nine-yard sack at the 3 that forced a Damien punt from its own end zone and gave the Knights the ball 23 yards away from a score with 8:16 to play.
It was a coming-out sequence for Tinco, who didn’t even start last week’s game.
“During practice, I sort of got more reps and today before we went out our defensive line coach said I was going to be starting today,” said Tinco, who finished with three sacks for a total loss of 26 yards. “It felt great; honestly, I am just so happy right now. I know I’m not going to play on after high school, so I am just soaking it up and loving every minute of it.”
Two plays after Tinco’s stand, St. Francis quarterback Ty Gangi (eight for 21 for 117 yards and a touchdown) kept the drive going with a 13-yard pass to Dylan Crawford at the 9-yard line to convert a third-and-nine.
Then Knights running back Joe Mudie carried the ball to the 1-yard line on consecutive four-yard runs. On third-and-goal, St. Francis turned to fullback Zach Washington for the one-yard touchdown on his first carry of the night.
It gave the Golden Knights a 27-16 lead with 5:04 to play. The game wasn’t put out of reach until Damien was held to a punt on the next drive and Areg Nazarian snapped off a 66-yard touchdown run to finish off the scoring on the first play of St. Francis’ ensuing possession.
While the Knights’ offense came and went at times Friday, their defense was reliable the whole way through.
“We got pressure on their quarterback and even when we didn’t he felt hurried and felt pressure,” said Bonds, whose team racked up five sacks. “Give our defense and defensive staff huge credit for getting our guys ready to play. … It was kind of bend but don’t break and we kept them out of the end zone for the most part.”
Defensively, St. Francis gave up its only touchdown of the game after Damien got prime field position after holding the home team to a three-and-out, forcing a Knights punt from their own six-yard line. Damien returned the punt to the 35 and moved 20 yards out from a score on facemask penalty committed by St. Francis on the return.
After Damien converted a third-and-one on a nine-yard pass from quarterback Brendan Callen to Mackenzie Sternquist, Leroy Cloud (164 yards in 23 carries) pushed into the end zone on a two-yard run to pull the Spartans with a score, 20-13, with 5:32 to play in the third quarter.
After being held to punts in its first two drives, St. Francis got on the board and took a 6-3 lead when Gangi found Crawford with five-yard touchdown pass seven minutes into the game.
Damien tied the game at 6 with 55 seconds left in the first half on a 35-yard kick from Vizcaino.
While the Spartans settled for field goals, St. Francis was end-zone bound. Its offense started to click behind the hard running of Mudie. The senior fueled a five-play (all runs), 80-yard touchdown drive — capped by a 17-yard Nazarian run — with four carries for 63 yards.
It was another quality performance from the Golden Knights’ line, which gave up two sacks, but outside of that opened things up for a total of 296 rushing yards.
Mudie, who also forced a fumble that was recovered by Mason Williams in the game, was the lead back with 172 yards and a touchdown in 25 carries. He had 123 yards in 15 carries in the first half. Nazarian had 85 yards and two touchdowns on three carries.
“It’s definitely something we’re not used to and it felt good,” St. Francis senior captain and center Trevor Provencio said of the tightly-contest affair. “It showed our true character, the last couple games we’ve been up by a lot; put the second-team guys in but this one definitely showed our character.”
St. Francis’ defense helped set up Mudie’s one-and-only score when it halted an eight-play Damien drive at the Knights’ 39. Facing a fourth-and-two at the 37, the Spartans’ Nick Castro was hit by the Knights’ Don Pontrelli for a two-yard loss that turned the ball over on downs. Two plays earlier, Pontrelli had another tackle for a two-yard loss to set up third-and-11.
Mudie was the one to finish the Knights’ ensuing seven-play drive with a six-yard touchdown run after Gangi found Carroll with a short pass on a crossing route over the middle for a 37-yard gain and first down on second-and-20.
St. Francis’ defense kept Damien out of a rhythm all night. Three players, including Tinco, Brodie Felkel and Ross Niederhaus, had sacks. Felkel had another tackle for a loss with Michael Weber in the first half. Ricky Urzua also had a tackle for a loss on the night for St. Francis, which also got an interception from Avery Williams.