From Gardena to West Hills to Culver City, the St. Francis High football team endured a rather troublesome span of three weeks or, perhaps more accurately, 120 minutes of game time.
But thanks to their final 24 minutes in Culver City, the Golden Knights are coming home.
And home is where St. Francis will host fourth-seeded Camarillo at 7 p.m. Friday in a CIF Southern Section Western Division quarterfinal.
“It’s gonna be epic,” St. Francis senior linebacker Ricky Urzua said. “Our whole school is behind us 110%. It’s gonna be packed.
“There’s nothing like playing football for St. Francis.”
After winning its first eight games of the season, St. Francis (9-2) lost its final two Mission League contests to Gardena Serra and Chaminade (the respective top two seeds in the tournament) before opening up the playoffs on the road against Culver City. Trailing, 21-7, in the second quarter, the Golden Knights eventually began a comeback run that saw them score 31 unanswered points, including winning the second half, 24-0, to advance to Friday’s quarterfinal.
Urzua and his teammates believe their play in the second half will carry over into Friday’s matchup with the Scorpions (10-1), who won the Pacific View League title, as they feel they’re back to the team that took the field the first eight games and for much of the first half against Serra, when St. Francis flirted with an upset.
“I think the first half of last game was shaking off the rust,” Urzua said. “It’s a whole new season now.
“We have to play that kind of football [we played in the second half] from here on out.”
Camarillo enters having won nine in a row, including a 35-0 pasting of Santa Ynez in its playoff opener.
“We have momentum and they have momentum, so I don’t think momentum is going to win this,” St. Francis senior offensive lineman Joe Loubier said. “Execution and practicing hard is going to win the game.”
Despite carrying the fourth seed, Camarillo is seen as the underdog by many, including calpreps.com, and Scorpions Coach Jack Willard believes his team has its toughest test to date.
“We know we have a giant task against St. Francis,” Willard said. “In looking at our schedule and the teams we’ve played, they are the most well-rounded team — offensively, defensively, special teams. We’ve played well-coached teams, but they’re also well-coached; they’re always prepared. They’re just so good with the things they can do.
“To me, they’re the best team we’ve played so far — no question.”
Both squads possess high-octane offenses.
Camarillo comes in averaging 36 points a game, showcases an efficient passing offense and also rushes the passer well on defense, averaging close to three sacks a game with 29 on the season.
“They’re definitely a good throwing team,” St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds said. “They throw a lot and they’re good at it.”
Camarillo junior quarterback Geron Rogers has thrown for 21 touchdowns and 1,989 yards on 147 completions in 221 attempts (67%).
“I think the key is to get at their quarterback,” said Urzua, who leads the Golden Knights with 82 tackles on a defense that had five sacks last week and has 27 on the season, led by Marko Tinoco’s nine. “He’s a big playmaker.”
As a whole, from its receiving corps to its offensive line, St. Francis’ offense has been stellar this season to the tune of an average of nearly 42 points per game. Grabbing a great deal of the headlines, however, and for good reason has been the one-two combo of senior quarterback Ty Gangi and senior running back Joe Mudie.
“They definitely compliment each other so well,” Bonds said. “It’s been such a great combination.”
Gangi has been a dual threat throwing and rushing, as he’s completed 164 of 290 passes (56%) for 2,485 yards and 23 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Rushing the ball, Gangi has proved pivotal in a number of ways: whether it’s sneaking for a first down or a touchdown, scrambling for big plays or on designed runs. It’s added up to 10 touchdowns on the ground and 307 yards in 94 carries.
“Defensively, we’re gonna have to be able to tackle the running back and we have to make sure the quarterback doesn’t beat us with his feet,” Willard said. “We have to contain him.”
Mudie is averaging more than 100 yards a game, having run for 1,187 in 145 carries, with 10 touchdowns on the ground. Out of the backfield, he’s grabbed 34 catches for 539 yards receiving and four touchdowns.
Against a somewhat unconventional 3-5 front that the Camarillo defense runs, Bonds believes the key for offensive success will lie on the offensive line being prepared.
“They’re always bringing different combinations of guys,” Bonds said. “We need to be really sharp on our [blocking] assignments.”
Should St. Francis, which is 5-0 at home, advance, it would move on to the semifinals for the first time since 2005, where it would travel to face Buena or host old foe Serra, which is the No. 1 seed and heavily favored against Buena.
“Everyone knows what’s at hand here,” Urzua said. “It’s win or go home now.”