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Football 2016: St. Francis Is Back Among WCAL’s Heavy Hitters — And It Plans On Staying There Story by DAVID KIEFER | Photos by... Rooted In Tradition

Football 2016: St. Francis Is Back Among WCAL’s Heavy Hitters — And It Plans On Staying There

Story by DAVID KIEFER | Photos by NORBERT VON DER GROEBEN

Back when the Ohlones roamed the oak woodlands of the Santa Clara Valley and long before the area gave way to suburban sprawl, a California bay laurel tree took root near a creek bed in present-day Mountain View.

As the Valley evolved into an agricultural region, orchards were planted around the tree, but it stood firm. When the Brothers of Holy Cross acquired the land to establish an all-boys Catholic high school in 1955, the tree remained.

And when the football field and track were laid out on the property a few years later, the field direction was shifted to save it. Artificial turf replaced natural grass more than a decade ago, but an underground irrigation system was created to accommodate the massive tree, which remains inside the track and behind the west end zone on Brother Fisher Field at St. Francis High.

More than anything else, that tree represents tradition at St. Francis. It has stood as a sentinel to Lancer football, over a program that has won 16 Central Coast Section titles and 17 championships in the rugged West Catholic Athletic League.

Tradition also is the theme of coach Greg Calcagno, who leads practice while wearing a shirt reading, “Effort, Teamwork, Sportsmanship,” inside the outline of a bay laurel.

Last year, Calcagno coached St. Francis to a share of its first WCAL football title in 12 years — ending the program’s longest-ever league title drought — and into its first CIF state bowl game.

No one understands the Lancers’ football tradition better than Calcagno, who quarterbacked the Lancers to an undefeated season and CCS Division I title in 1982, and is the son of a coaching legend. His father, Ron Calcagno, coached the Lancers to 11 CCS titles, and 12 WCAL championships in 24 seasons. Today, the Lancers play in Ron Calcagno Stadium.

The St. Francis players know all about tradition. That’s part of what drives them as they head into a new season with great expectations.

“One of our biggest goals was bringing that tradition back,” said senior running back Cyrus Habibi-Likio, a big reason for the Lancers’ rise to the CCS Open Div. and state Division II-A title games last year.

The Lancers return six defensive starters and four on offense, plus junior quarterback Reed Vettel, who made his first varsity start in the state bowl game and passed for 209 yards in the 23-20 loss at Citrus Hill-Perris.

Habibi-Likio and Bennett Williams were difference-makers during a 12-3 year. After missing his sophomore season with a shoulder injury, Habibi-Likio rushed for 1,438 yards, gained 2,202 all-purpose, and returned two kickoffs for scores among his 21 touchdowns as a junior. Habibi-Likio (6-foot-1, 200 pounds) has committed to Washington State.

Williams (6-0, 192) filled the stat sheet in a different way. As a cornerback, Williams intercepted nine passes, defensed 26 more, made 87 tackles, forced three fumbles and blocked a punt. He also caught 16 passes for 283 yards and scored three touchdowns. When he came to St. Francis, he thought he would be a running back, but said that after seeing Habibi-Likio on the first day of tryouts, he changed his mind.

“Junior year, we rode on our athletic ability,” Williams said. “This summer, I’ve worked harder than I’ve ever worked, by far. I’d like to say, I’m the best student of the game on the field. Every time I go out there, I’m going to be the smartest one out there. I want to know everything that’s going on.”

Habibi-Likio feels the same way.

“When I was younger, I was the one who was never ‘it’ when we were playing tag,” Habibi-Likio said. “It’s always been that natural athletic ability. But I realized, if I have that advantage already over these people, what would happen if I work 10 times harder? If coach gives us 10 reps, I’m going to do 11, 12, 13 reps instead.”

The closeness of their losses — 28-26 to Bellarmine-San Jose in WCAL play, 27-21 to Oak Grove-San Jose at CCS, and the state bowl — have haunted the Lancers somewhat. But they also understand how close they were to achieving all their goals. To clarify, the primary focus, Calcagno said, is always the WCAL.

“Every week’s a fight,” he said.

For several years, St. Francis has played mostly with a veer attack. Calcagno changed that, following the lead of David Shaw’s Stanford teams by featuring a Pro-set ‘I’ power running game.

“We’re going to run,” Calcagno said. “We know what our bread-and-butter is.”

The attack will continue to feature Habibi-Likio, a shifty back who also can run over defenders. In addition to his physical gifts, his field vision is unparalleled.

“If someone’s coming up to me, I’m already thinking I’m past them,” Habibi-Likio said. “I’m focusing on someone else.”

Calcagno said he’s trying to strike a balance between getting Habibi-Likio as many touches as possible, with trying to protect him enough to get through a long season. A second back will be vital to help carry the load. The nonleague season should help identify a capable candidate.

For all the hype the Lancers face entering the season, there remains plenty of work before they can truly consider eclipsing the 2015 season. A recent practice was marred by the kind of plays you see in blooper videos: A pass that whirlybirds like a helicopter, a lineman launching forward for a block a full second early, a snap that sails past the quarterback.

Calcagno, who prides his teams on playing fundamentally-sound football, switches back and forth between quiet frustration and flat-out anger.

“I’m not going to sleep very good if we cannot get a basic snap!” he yells.

The struggles could be a good thing. The opener, a rematch of the CCS Open championship game with Oak Grove, is only days away. The Lancers know they have plenty of work before they even dare consider a state championship.

But behind them, shading a corner of the end zone, is the stately bay laurel.

“That tree’s seen a lot of football,” Calcagno says.

It’s presence seems to provide a sense of reassurance. St. Francis will be just fine.

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