LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — When asked about the magnitude of the upcoming 2011 season, St. Francis High senior Ryan McAleenan doesn't hesitate with an answer.
"This is the year we're gonna remember," said McAleenan, a three-year starter at linebacker for the Golden Knights. "This is the year we're gonna live with for the rest of our lives."
It's clearly not a novel concept in the realm of high school football for there to be that innate, added incentive during a player's senior campaign. But for these Golden Knights, it's a common thread that runs through for 20 senior starters led by five three-year lettermen.
They appear to be a group rife with chemistry and desire to rebound from a disappointing 2010 campaign and recount a memorable 2009 run.
"I feel like we have a different attitude," said right tackle Kristion Grbavac, who joins McAleenan, receiver Travis Talianko, offensive lineman Joe Marrone and linebacker Luke Anderson for their third and final seasons starting at St. Francis. "People just want to win. That's on everyone's mind, people are buying into it.
"It kind of feels like my sophomore year. We have that chemistry."
During Grbavac and his fellow three-season starters' sophomore season, the Golden Knights finished second in the Mission League, advanced to the second round of the CIF Southern Section Western Division playoffs and went 9-3 behind the play and leadership of the likes of Dietrich Riley, Justin Posthuma and Chris Cabrera. St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds, like many of his players, see some similarities between the two teams and, particularly, the seniors that define them.
"I've seen some positive signs that point to a positive season," Bonds said. "I feel like football is very important to this group of kids, the group of seniors, in particular. It's something they have in common with Dietrich Riley and Justin Posthuma and Chris Cabrera. … I feel like this year they're buying into what we're doing as coaches and believing in one another."
Last year, St. Francis finished 6-5 in a season marked by a four-game losing slide that, along with the team's season-ending loss to Dominguez in the first round of the playoffs, featured losses against the top four teams in the division.
"It was really frustrating," MacAleenan said. "I don't think we played to our potential all the time."
But it might well have been a lesson, as St. Francis opens its season Friday at Arcadia at 7 p.m. to begin a campaign in which it will face the same 10 regular season opponents it did a year ago.
"We can't underestimate anyone and, at the same time, we can't be scared of anyone," MacAleenan said.
It will be much the same when St. Francis, ranked eighth in the Western Division, embarks upon play in the Mission League. It is a league that boasts Chaminade, ranked No. 1 in the division, defending champion Serra (No. 5) and St. Paul (No. 2) among a string of formidable foes.
"There's really nobody on our schedule, especially in league, that we can just show up for and win," Anderson said.
Anderson and MacAleenan — who combined for more than 160 tackles last season — will lead a linebacking corps and defense that is projected to have a senior in all 11 slots. Joey Dowling is the other backer in the trio and is, likewise, a returning starter.
"We've gotten so much more sophisticated with everything," said Anderson of defensive coordinator Mark Gibbons' base 4-3 defense. "We're all working together.
"We've all gotten bigger and faster. We're just gonna fly around and hit people."
Leading the defensive backfield will be Parker Nieves at cornerback. The returning All-CIF and All-Area standout is joined by returning starters at strong safety Raul Castillo and, at free safety, Talianko. Billy McCreary and Christian Hess are likely to split time at the other cornerback position.
McCreary will also likely figure in a kicking game that could feature school soccer standout Mark Verso and reserve quarterback Forrest Ascarrunz at punter.
Defensively, the defensive line seemingly could be the biggest question, as it offers the least amount of starting experience. Griffin Longo and Matt Casciani are set to occupy the defensive end spots, with Jose Padilla and Tyler Marona at the tackle spots.
One aspect Bonds is excited about is that none of his defensive or offensive linemen are slated to start on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, the line is anchored by Grbavac and Marrone as three-year starters, with Grbavac at right tackle and Marrone at left guard. Left tackle Zach George is also a returning starter, while right guard Dimitri Starzak also got some starting experience last season.
At center, junior Matt Kubly will be one of just two juniors starting on the team.
"It's really up to the line," Grbavac said. "If we can handle what people throw at us, those specialty guys can do it all."
Kubly will snap the ball to the other junior starter — quarterback Jared Lebowitz.
Lebowitz is a transfer from Vermont, who's shown a strong arm and a mobile game in hopes of following along in the line of Posthuma and Brett Nelson last season as St. Francis All-CIF quarterbacks.
"He's an intelligent kid, he's really picked up our offense a lot faster than I thought anybody could," Bonds said. "I think he's a great combination of [our previous two quarterbacks]. He throws like Brett, runs like Posthuma."
While Lebowitz could add another running option to the offense, Bonds also believes the return of leading rusher Austin De Los Santos, along with Nieves and juniors Daniel Kawamura and Joey Velladao added into the mix could make for a potent and diverse rushing game.
"We'll be able to move the ball well this year," De Los Santos said. "I think we're confident in all areas."
Nieves will also see time at receiver and possibly quarterback in a wildcat package.
"He's gonna play a little bit of everything," Bonds said.
Of course, the most ballyhooed return is likely that of Talianko, an All-Area Player of the Year candidate last year who caught 59 balls for 946 yards and 17 touchdowns. But the receiving corps — which will also see McAleenan at tight end and Jeff Garavaglia and McCreary at receiver — will likely get a big boost from the return of Hess.
Another big target for Lebowitz, Hess has shown huge improvement during the summer.
"If not the most improved, he's one of the most improved guys on the field," Bonds said.
Of course, the largest quandary for the Golden Knights remains whether they can improve upon their results last season. Thus far, in terms of energy, attitude and chemistry, they all believe they have. Only time will tell, of course, and if there's to be a theme for the Golden Knights in 2011, it might just very well be time, as the senior-laden squad realizes its time is now.
"We have a poster in our team room with our goals on it," Anderson said. "It says win the Mission League and compete for a Western Division title. Obviously, it's my senior year, so I want a little more, I want to win it all."