Knights fall in CIF playoffs

It was a brilliant beginning and a sensational ending.

But in between the showcase of St. Francis High soccer skill came a span in which visiting San Clemente was a bit too much to stop, scoring three straight goals, and therein lied the difference in the Tritons' 3-2 victory over the Golden Knights in Friday afternoon's rainy CIF Southern Section Division I quarterfinal match.

"All credit to them," said Golden Knights Coach Glen Appels of San Clemente (15-6-6). "The first 25 minutes of the second half, they were dominant."

The stretch of dominance over St. Francis (15-10) might very well have started late in the first half, as the match saw the Golden Knights come out in controlling nature before it became a back-and-forth affair and then finally settled into San Clemente's game.

Senior standout Eric Verso scored a pair of goals — bringing his total to four in three playoff games this season — giving the Golden Knights a 1-0 lead early on and then a glimmer of hope, cutting the score to its final tally just seconds before the final whistle.

"There's not a lot of quit in them," said Appels of his team, which finished second in the Mission League before its quarterfinal ascent. "They were already celebrating and we put a scare in them."

Indeed, the Tritons and their large gathering of boisterous fans were doing a bit of premature celebrating when the game turned drastically in the Golden Knights' favor.

With just nine minutes left in the match, San Clemente's goalie was given a yellow card for stalling and his infraction was followed by a soft red card when defender DJ Fuller protested the call.

St. Francis set up with a free kick from roughly 15 yards out. Verso's subsequent kick was headed away by San Clemente, resulting in a corner kick that saw Mark Verso head a shot over the net. Another St. Francis header later on, this one by Jake LaPorte off a throw-in play also went just over the net.

The Golden Knights would produce five shots in the final nine minutes, with the Tritons taking just one in that span. The last came when a LaPorte free kick was flicked in by Eric Verso. Just second later, though, the final whistle was blown.

The final surge by St. Francis was hardly reminiscent of the earlier stages of the game, as San Clemente, which has won all three of its playoff games by one goal, outshot its host, 19-13.

"The real problem was they got so many chances," said Appels, also referencing a great many throw-ins up close and corner kicks that the Tritons had. "They found open guys. We were chasing a lot."

It was the Tritons who were chasing a goal early, though.

Inside the game's first few minutes, St. Francis junior midfielder Derek Bell took a free kick from the 18-yard line that forced a diving save and created a subsequent corner kick. Bell served it up nicely and Mark Verso put a header right on frame, but the shot bounced off the crossbar.

"We were unfortunate in the first two minutes with those chances," Appels said.

Mark Verso, a sophomore striker, wasted little time in showing he'd be the same player he had been all season in the air despite donning a protective mask after suffering a broken nose in the Golden Knights' second-round win over Ventura.

"Mark's a hero," Appels said. "That's a brave young man."

It was older brother Eric that followed soon after with a score, thanks in part to Mark.

Senior midfielder Garrett Swart sent a pass inside to Eric Verso, who then went from right to left, angling toward the net and using a pick from Mark to find space before unleashing a left-footed shot inside the far post in the ninth minute.

With 15 minutes left in the half, San Clemente scored when Steve Palacios bowled through a St. Francis defender before passing off to Gage Zerbonie for the score. Palacios' physical play drew the ire of the Golden Knights' sideline and fans, but no call.

Then, just two minutes before the half, Fabian Caudillo crossed a high ball that St. Francis goalie Paul Dean, who made eight saves, tipped. The ball came off Dean's fingertips and was perfectly placed for a header finish by Bryan Fouch.

San Clemente would take seven of the second half's first nine shots, but the Golden Knights sustained the barrage until just under 12 minutes was left and Caudillo flipped a ball up to Palacios, who spun his mark and chipped in an insurmountable 3-1 lead.

"That last goal was tough," said Appels, whose team will lose 10 seniors, among them such standouts as LaPorte, Sean Fitzpatrick, Tim Nguyen and Eric Verso.

After Palacios' score, St. Francis still had fight left and produced one final score and one final memory of the playoff drama written in Eric Verso's storied Golden Knights tenure. He keyed a Division I semifinal run in 2009 before leading the way to the program's first and only CIF Southern California Division II Regional Championships title. After a year away with the U.S. Soccer Academy, he returned as a senior only to have injuries hamper him before leaving a few more playoff memories.

"He was still never 100%," Appels said. "He's a special player, we're gonna miss him."

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