Article written by By Gerry Gittelson, Special to the Daily News
The school has gone 49 years since winning a Southern Section football championship, but St. Francis has remained competitive year in and year out, and this season the Golden Knights are doing more than merely plugging away.
With a high-powered offense that averages 444 yards and 44.5 points per game, St. Francis (8-0) is off to its best start since 1966 heading into a Mission League showdown at 7 p.m. Friday at Serra (8-0), ranked No. 4 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports and No. 7 in the nation by USA Today.
St. Francis has a challenging academic curriculum and rigorous entrance requirements that force the Golden Knights to turn away a lot of talented prospective student athletes that other nearby private schools readily accept. An occasional all-state type like Dietrich Riley (ex-UCLA) has shown up through the years, but mostly St. Francis succeeds on home-grown talent.
As a result, the trophy case is not overflowing with championship hardware, and the school usually is not mentioned in the same breath with other elite private-school programs like Oaks Christian, Alemany and Chaminade.
Instead, the campus has a small-town feel with a hearty supply of pride and school spirit. Nearly every graduate goes on to attend a four-year university, maybe not to play major-college football but perhaps with an extra dose of loyalty and commitment — qualities missing at some of the other highly competitive programs.
The Golden Knights are not a football power in the traditional sense. Nevertheless, they’ve made the playoffs 12 times in 13 years since former UCLA quarterback Jim Bonds took over as head coach.
St. Francis, ranked No. 3 in the Western Division, figures to be in for a big challenge Friday at defending champion Serra, which already has defeated Notre Dame, Chaminade and Harvard-Westlake.
“We know we’re in store for a tough games with Serra, so we’re just taking things one step at a time and preparing to play hard,” St. Francis running back Joe Mudie said. “We’re 8-0 and we feel great. Our whole team has played well, and we just have good team effort.
“Everyone on the team believes in each other, and everything has been clicking on offense and defense and special teams.”
Being an underdog, not just tonight but in general, serves as motivation.
“It motivates us more and makes us prepare even harder,” Mudie said. “We’re not focused on making a name for ourselves, just on playing hard. I mean, publicity is good, but it’s not the most important thing.”
Mudie is coming off a career night, rushing for 225 yards and two touchdowns Friday in a 44-14 victory over Harvard-Westlake. He has rushed for 987 yards — 412 over the past two games — and scored 13 touchdowns in addition to 25 receptions and 29.3-yard average on kick returns.
Mudie is among a group of key seniors including quarterback Ty Gangi, linebackers Kevin Maloof and Michael Weber and defensive lineman Ricky Urzua.
Gangi, a first-year starter, has passed for 1,543 yards and 18 touchdowns, and he also has scored five touchdowns. He has taken advantage after waiting patiently for a opportunity, and the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder has passed for at least one touchdown in every game.
“I learned a lot during the spring and summer, and I’ve just practiced hard,” Gangi said.
Having Bonds as the head coach has helped Gangi a lot. In high school, Bonds led Hart to a Northwestern Conference championship in 1986. His coaching mentor is Bill Redell, who plucked Bonds, then 23, as an assistant at St. Francis before Bonds eventually took the head job at Alemany for three years. When Redell moved to Oaks Christian, Bonds returned to St. Francis.
The coach still enjoys a tradition of playing long toss with his quarterbacks every day and Gangi has a good grasp of team concepts, and that’s something the coach has instilled.
“I’ve got a couple of really good receivers with John Carroll and Dylan Crawford,” Gangi said. “John is a big target, 6-4, 220 pounds, and he’s coming off a big game last week against Harvard-Westlake. Once I get him the ball, he can really run with it, too. Dylan, he’s only a sophomore, but he’s been really great because he’s so fluid, and he’s great at adjusting to the ball.”
Gangi operates behind an offensive line featuring seniors Trevor Provencio (6-2, 290), Joe Loubier (6-5, 260) and Austin Finton (6-1, 240). Provencio is a co-captain along with Mudie and Maloof.
Maloof is the cousin of world-renowned businessman Joe Maloof, the ex-owner of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and present owner of Palms Casino in Las Vegas.
Maloof is a part of a hard-hitting defense that has allowed an average of just 15 points and forced 15 turnovers.
“We’re a really stout defense. I’m happy but there’s always room for improvement,” Maloof said. “We just keep practicing hard every week, and I think we’ve got a chance against Serra. We plan on taking it to ‘em.”
Bonds is the architect of St. Francis’ success. When he first left Alemany to take the job, he said it was an easy decision to make because St. Francis just felt like home.
“I enjoyed my time at Alemany, which was my first head-coaching job, but I had made some great relationships at St. Francis with Bill Redell and the administration, and when Bill left, he kind of gave me a head’s up and brought me in,” Bonds said. “It’s was just a place where I wanted to put my feet on the ground and wanted to be for a long time.”
Bonds is 102-57 at St. Francis. He has a group of seasoned assistants, including offensive coordinator Joe Monarrez, who has been at St. Francis for 17 years, and defensive coordinator Mark Gibbons, who has been there 21 years.
If St. Francis can forge an upset Friday, it would be perhaps the biggest regular-season victory in Bonds’ career. Of course, no one expects it to happen, but Bonds and the Golden Knights believe in each other, and for him that’s the most important thing.
“I like St. Francis because we have such good kids,” Bonds said. “They’re very respectful young men, they’re academically motivated, and I have a great staff. I’m having a great time here.”