Above: St. Francis’ Thomas Banks defends against Chaminade last year.
Despite a sub. 500 record during the nonleague portion of its season, the St. Francis High School boys soccer team is still considered the area’s premiere team.
And that’s not just in the San Gabriel Valley, but throughout Division 1 in the CIF-Southern Section. Sure, the Golden Knights (4-7-4, 3-1) are not, yet at least, ranked in the Division I coaches’ poll, but a quick look at their record in Mission League would argue they could soon belong there.
There won’t be much of an argument if St. Francis can execute this week with two big games, starting at Chaminade (7-3-3, 1-2-1) at 5 today and at home Saturday at 3 p.m. against rival Loyola (14-3-4, 3-0-2), which is ranked No. 6 in Division 1.
St. Francis got off to a rough start, but that was expected what with the Golden Knights always playing a beefed up schedule during theirn nonleague portion, from playing St. John Bosco of the Trinity League, considered the toughest league in the nation, to perennial powerhouse West Torrance and Santa Barbara, ranked No. 5 in Division 1.
St. Francis recorded its biggest win in nonleague against Santa Barbara (13-4-4), a team the Golden Knights in the past have had trouble against, especially on the road.
“We beat them here in the last minute last year on a Mark Verso head ball with 30 seconds to go,” St. Francis coach Glen Appels said. “We’ve gone up there and lost handedly a couple times.”
This time, St. Francis drove up on a Saturday morning and led 2-0 before holding on a 2-1 win in playoff-like atmosphere.
“It was important to show ourselves that we can ply with the best teams,” Appels said. “You mention perennial and I think they’ve won six CIF titles and a regional championship. You go there and you always have your hands full.”
The rough start to the season didn’t hold over into league play. Despite losing the league opener to Harvard-Westlake on a goal that came in the final 30 seconds, St. Francis feels confident as it sits in the thick of the league standings tied for second with Harvard Westlake (12-2-2, 3-1).
“It took us a little bit long to get started,” Appels said. “But we’ve been happy with our play and our results in league.”
St. Francis has recorded three consecutive wins on the road against Crespi (3-0), Alemany (4-1) and Notre Dame (2-0).
“Chaminade, Crespi, everybody has a shot at the playoffs,” Appels said. “Our last games are going to be tremendously important.”
But it starts tonight on the road before playing Loyola. After that, the Golden Knights play five of their final seven games at home.
“By the end of hte week the whole league is going to look a little bit differently than it does now,” Appels said.
St. Francis has added more firepower to its lineup, starting with senior Matt Laterza who was last year was not on the team and instead playing with the U.S. Soccer Academy. Laterza started in the midfield and has since been pushed up front alongside Billy McCreary, giving St. Francis two top forward who possess speed and also are physical.
There are new faces but none more than in St. Francis’ backline, led by sweeper Thomas Banks, a senior captain. He’s been called upon anchoring the backline.
“He’s been a steady influence in our back four,” Appels said. “All are new guys back there who didn’t play for us last year.”
The Golden Knights also features two standout goalkeepers in Luca Coppola and Paul Dean.
“That’s a real luxury,” Appels said. “It’s just good to have two guys who can play in big games.”
Perhaps the biggest comeback for St. Francis this season is senior midfielder Austin Frank, who broke his leg as a sophomore and dealt with lingering issues as a junior.
As if that wasn’t enough, the senior captain then suffered a concussion 10 minutes into the season opener this season, and when then pulled a groin muscle upon his return. He’s since become the player Appels knew he was capable of being.
“In preleague we saw very little of Austin,” Appels said, “but he’s starting to be a dominant player again.”