The Resilience Of The St. Francis Football Team Was On Full Display In Its First CIF State Bowl Victory •
Story by MIKE WOOD | Photos by JAMES K. LEASH
With furious winds pounding Sacramento State’s Hornet Stadium throughout the CIF Division 2-A state championship game, completing passes was a lofty challenge.
Hitting on a touchdown pass seemed out of the question.
But St. Francis High-Mountain View did that not once, but twice in capturing the school’s first state football championship. With wind gusts up to nearly 50 miles per hour making passing an adventure, Evan Williams’ 29-yard catch from Reed Vettel with 7:19 left in the second quarter brought St. Francis an 8-7 lead Grace Brethren-Simi Valley. Williams’ second TD catch — for 3 yards with just 1:52 remaining — sealed the Lancers’ 22-13 victory on Dec. 16.
“We kind of knew the weather was going to be a little crazy coming in,” Williams said. “We just knew it was going to come down to heart.”
The game was locked in a stalemate throughout the second half with St. Francis owning a slim 15-13 lead, until Williams’ second TD catch did in the tenacious Grace Brethren.
“I felt good with my matchup all game, and it was man-to-man coverage,” Williams said. “(Vettel) just trusted me to go up and get it. He threw it up and I made the play. It felt good to get that last play.”
That St. Francis (11-4) somehow found success in the passing game was just part of the offensive equation. Having a 2,000-yard rusher, junior Darrell Page, surely helped matters, too. Though it was tough sledding at times against Grace Brethren’s defense, Page still went for 103 yards on 25 carries, giving his defense valuable rest as the offense ate up clock time.
“I was all frustrated,” Page said of his sentiments at halftime. “But my teammates helped me out and got me through it. Especially my line and my fullback, Nick Robinson, helped me to get through the game. You are not going to break every game, not going to break every run. Not going to get a touchdown every game.”
Lineman Tyler Manoa, one of four two-way starters for St. Francis, complimented Page for his perseverance.
“Darrell did his thing all year. And at halftime, he was kind of down on himself, saying he’s not doing his thing. I just told him we’re going to go off of you; the line moves so you do. He followed us and he trusted in us and we did our jobs.”
The game tightened in the second half into a field position battle. St. Francis’ defense held strong in the third quarter, then its offense got the wind in its favor for the fourth quarter.
St. Francis took nearly seven minutes off the clock on a drive that began late in the third quarter, with punishing runs by Page driving the ball to the Grace Brethren 8. But with field goal attempts out of the question due to the winds, a fade pass went incomplete and Grace Brethren had another crack at it with 7:55 to go in the game. But on a crucial third-and-5 play, quarterback Michael Zele was sacked by Manoa and Joshua Pakola to force a punt.
“We got good uphill pressure and luckily he decided to scramble out,” Manoa said. “And we had good pursuit on him and we got him.”
Grace Brethren (13-3) had scored on two big plays: Seven McGee’s 43-yard run with 6:41 left in the first quarter for the game’s first score, and Zele’s 72-yard toss to a wide-open Jermel Jones that halted St. Francis’s second-quarter momentum to make it 15-13 at the half. Factoring out those two plays, Grace Brethren was held to just 83 net yards of offense.
“Our defense is what we hang our hat on,” St. Francis coach Greg Calcagno said. “That’s what we do best, what we specialize in.”
St. Francis also specialized in triumphs in situations that were far from easy. Most of its seniors played as sophomores on St. Francis’ 2015 junior varsity team that went 2-8. That same year, its varsity lost 23-20 to Citrus Hill-Perris in the Lancers’ only previous state bowl appearance.
This season, they finished third in the extremely competitive West Catholic Athletic League, then came up a two-point conversion short in a 31-30 loss in the Central Coast Section Open Division II championship game to Serra-San Mateo, which also won a state bowl title in Sacramento.
“We battled Serra and went for two and didn’t get it, so to get an opportunity to go and take advantage of it was pretty special,” Calcagno said. “I think our guys were pretty relieved to get it done. … We battled, we’ve been down. We’ve been down 14 points in the fourth quarter and come back. We try to make something out of everything. These guys, they are a special group, that’s for sure.”
The ensuing celebration at game’s end howled louder than any windstorm could.
“That’s why it meant so much to us because we lost CCS, we lost WCAL and for us to come here and win state, we proved everybody wrong,” Page said. “We proved a lot of people wrong. We were the first team to win state in St. Francis history. That shows a lot about us. To overcome those situations, to overcome adversity.”