Through the dark days of four weeks of consecutive defeats, the St. Francis High football team emerged on Friday night under the lights of Friedman Field.
Bolstered by a stellar defensive effort throughout and an offensive surge that keyed a 30-point, third-quarter blitzkrieg, the Golden Knights kept their playoff hopes alive, seemingly righted their ship and trounced Mission League nemesis St. Paul, 40-10, all in one fell swoop.
"It makes you just not take winning for granted," said Golden Knights Coach Jim Bonds, whose team snapped a four-game losing streak to improve to 4-4 and 1-2 in league with the win over the Swordsmen (5-3, 1-2), the eighth-ranked team in the CIF Southern Section Western Division. "I can't remember ever being on a four-game losing streak. It was good just to get back on the winning track. The feeling was night and day. That's what I told the guys after the game; remember how you felt the last four weeks, compared to how you feel now."
Linebacker Luke Anderson, who's also St. Francis' fullback and scored its first touchdown of the night to give the Golden Knights at 7-3 lead, had one of three sacks for St. Francis and one of its three takeaways with a second-half interception as the defense allowed just 139 yards of total offense to St. Paul.
Golden Knights quarterback Brett Nelson had 284 yards passing, two touchdowns and one interception as he completed 15 of 28 passes, though the offense proved stagnant through the first 24 minutes before erupting in the third quarter.
"We came out slow. We always seem to shoot ourselves in the foot, that's a thing we're still trying to fix," said Nelson, who hooked up with Travis Talianko on a 14-yard touchdown to open the second half and connected with Ian Hamilton on a highlight reel 69-yard scoring play to end St. Francis' offensive blitz. "When we get going, we're obviously a volatile offense."
The Golden Knights marched 60 yards in seven plays on the second half's opening drive, keyed by a Nelson-to-Parker Nieves 24-yard reception in which Nieves went over the middle, got lit up, but hung on to the ball to spark the drive. Four straight runs by Austin De Los Santos out of a hurry-up offense led to Talianko's 14-yard scoring grab with 8:00 left in the third quarter.
On the ensuing St. Paul drive, defensive back Raul Castillo broke up a pass and Anderson grabbed the deflection and busted loose of two tackles, returning the ball 13 yards to set up the Golden Knights offense at the St. Paul 13. Two plays later, De Los Santos rumbled 13 yards for a touchdown and at 24-3 with 5:55 to go in the third, the rout was on, but the scoring surge had hardly ended.
"They executed better in the second half, point-blank," Bonds said. "When we haven't been winning these games, we haven't been able to execute."
The defense then forced a three and out and St. Francis took over on offense. Nelson hit De Los Santos for a 23-yard pickup, Nieves for an 11-yard grab and Hamilton on a 20-yard hookup on the drive, as nine different receivers had receptions on the night. But it was Hamilton who threw a touchdown pass to end the drive, as the receiver took a pitch on a reverse before juking two would-be tacklers in the backfield and then unleashing a pass across his body to a wide-open Talianko, who skied up for the pass and fell backward for a 26-yard scoring grab. Talianko finished with four grabs for 53 yards and two scores.
The St. Francis defense added to its laundry list of accolades on the night when Keith Enterante notched a sack for a safety to make it 33-3. St. Paul quarterback Paul Tate attempted just 11 passes, completing only three for 28 yards with interceptions to Anderson and one to Richie Maloof, in which Maloof caught the ball on the ground.
St. Francis' scoring came to a close in dynamic fashion, as Nelson threw high for Talianko, who deflected the pass into the awaiting arms of Hamilton. Hamilton bobbled the ball twice before securing it and racing 69 yards for the score and an emphatic 40-3 lead with 19 seconds left in the third quarter and 12:19 left in a game that had long been decided.
"As well as our defense played in the first half, it felt like it should've been 28-0, but I'm happy with how we came out in the second half," Bonds said. "We came out in the first half and failed to execute."
Throughout both halves, though, the defense was stellar.
"We struggled on defense as of late giving up big plays," Anderson said. "We were able to stop it tonight."
The one exception was running back Michael Ortega's 52-yard scoring run, but it came with 7:02 left in the game on the Swordsmen's last drive.
In the first half, while St. Francis' defense bottled up the St. Paul offense, the Golden Knights offense seemingly bottled up itself.
Leading into the matchup, Bonds and the Golden Knights minced no words in deeming the game a playoff contest, as a loss would've all but prevented any hope of securing an automatic top-three league playoff bid. That desire, or desperation, for a win showed itself early, as Bonds elected to go for it on the game's second drive, but a Nelson sneak on fourth and one from the Golden Knights 40 came up short. It led to a St. Paul 3-0 lead after the ensuing drive.
"This was our playoffs," Bonds said. "That was definitely our mentality going into it."
Bonds rolled the dice again on fourth and three from the St. Paul 42 on his team's next drive. This time, Nelson converted on a 32-yard pass to Griffin Longo to keep a drive going that culminated with Anderson's scoring run. Then, the Golden Knights went flat.
A Joey Dowling fumble recovery saw the Golden Knights take over on the Swordsmen 27, but the drive produced no more than an Ian Sternau 34-yard field goal. Sternau put together a solid night, converting the field goal, all five of his extra-point attempts, five touchbacks and his lone punt was inside the 20.
St. Francis was then the beneficiary of 10- and 16-yard punts and on all of the next three of its drives began with the ball inside the St. Paul 40. But a Nelson interception in the end zone ended the first, a punt ended the second and the third saw the half tick away after Nelson was sacked.
"We came into halftime frustrated cause we knew we should've been up on them by a lot more than [10-3]," Anderson said. "We were able to come out in the second half and execute."
As much of a relief as Friday's win was and as much as the Golden Knights celebrated the playoff-atmosphere triumph, they were all still aware that it will matter not if they don't follow the ending of a losing streak with the beginning of a winning streak.
"We still have to come out and win those two [remaining] games [against Cathedral and Harvard-Westlake] for the playoffs," Anderson said. "This win doesn't mean anything if we don't win the next two."