LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — On the doorstep of adulation, riding a tidal wave of momentum, it all slipped away for St. Francis High’s football team in gut-wrenching fashion.
With just over one minute remaining, the Golden Knights trailed Monrovia by four points, but a clutch Jared Lebowitz fourth-down conversion pass to John Carroll put St. Francis on the Wildcats’ one-yard line with time, opportunity and the momentum to go ahead and likely claim victory.
But the ensuing play saw a quarterback sneak fumbled into the air before coming to rest on the ground in the grasp of Monrovia, leading to a 17-13 victory for the Wildcats and a bitter loss for the host Knights on Friday night at Friedman Field.
“There at the end, that’s heart-wrenching,” said St. Francis Coach Jim Bonds, whose team, ranked fourth in the CIF Southern Section Western Division, fell to 3-2. “We just couldn’t get the center-quarterback exchange down.”
Monrovia (3-2), ranked third in the Mid-Valley Division a season after winning a CIF title, took the ball with 1:03 left to play and used a three-yard run to get some breathing room, before taking consecutive knees to run out the clock.
The game-winning score also came via turnover, as St. Francis running back Daniel Kawamura broke a 10-yard run, but then, apparently fumbled, though the run of play seemed to stop. But Wildcats safety Deshawn Potts ran untouched on the far sideline for a 24-yard score and a 17-13 lead with 9:01 to play in the third quarter.
“We’ve been harping on taking it away and taking care of it,” Bonds said. “[On Kawamura’s fumble], it looked like everybody stopped playing. Our guys swore it was down. But that’s high school refs and high school football. You can’t put the ball on the ground.”
Therein laid the difference, as St. Francis held a precarious 13-10 halftime lead, but was shut out in the second half with the Monrovia offense on the field for much of the final 24 minutes.
“Our kids played a great game,” Monrovia Coach Ryan Maddox said. “We talked about not beating ourselves and we did that tonight.
“Hats off to our defense for making that stand at the end.”
Alas, Monrovia almost did beat itself, as it committed an illegal motion penalty on a third-and-three play, followed that with a timeout and then dropped a third-down conversion, forcing a punt to St. Francis with just over six minutes to play in the fourth.
Lebowtiz, who finished with 174 yards passing, completing 16 of 27 for no touchdowns and no interceptions, rallied the Golden Knights on the dramatic ensuing drive. He hit Matt Gonzalez for 20 yards on third and eight, then Evan Crawford for 20 more on third and 10 and finally Carroll for 14 yards down to the one on fourth and three. But it was the final play, of course, that spelled the Golden Knights’ doom.
“Offensively, we kinda just gave it away,” Bonds said.
The Golden Knights also allowed two sacks and Lebowitz was under pressure all night.
“We were able to put pressure on Lebowitz and make him uncomfortable back there,” Maddox said. “That makes it rough on the quarterback.”
Kawamura rushed for 67 yards in 20 carries and also caught five passes for 64 yards as St. Francis totaled 234 yards of offense to Monrovia’s 263.
“Our defense played well,” said Bonds of a defense that allowed just one offensive touchdown.
Still, it was a defense that was on the field for long drives, as the Wildcats got 169 yards in 25 carries from running back Ge Vontray Ainsworth. Quarterback Blake Heyworth struggled, though, throwing for 65 yards on six-of-15 passing. He was also intercepted by Kevin Maloof. Heyworth transferred from St. Francis to Monrovia after his sophomore year when Lebowitz transferred in from out of state.
Perhaps lost in the defeat was an outstanding effort by Golden Knights defensive end Cole Ramseyer, who had four sacks.
“Cole, his motor never stops,” Bonds said. “He played his heart out. There’s a lot of guys that played their hearts out. It’s just unfortunate it had to end that way.”
It began with Monrovia marching into St. Francis territory on the first drive of the game, but the Wildcats were held to a field goal with 8:04 to go in the first quarter thanks to a Ramseyer third-down sack.
The Golden Knights’ ensuing drive ended with Lebowitz taking a savage hit on a third-down incompletion. But a brilliant Forrest Ascarrunz punt pinned the Wildcats at their own one and the Golden Knights defense didn’t allow a yard in forcing a three-and-out. It was one of four punts on the night that Ascarrunz put inside the Wildcats’ 20.
Monrovia’s defense answered, as well, pushing the Golden Knights offense back five yards on the ensuing drive. Still, the field position was good enough for St. Francis kicker Mark Verso to boot a 42-yard field goal to tie the game with 2:13 to go in the first.
Verso, who was a perfect four for four on kickoffs with touchbacks, added a 25-yard field goal with 8:35 left in the half to cut the score to 10-6. The kick came after Monrovia surged ahead on a 49-yard run by Potts. Potts spiked the ball after the score, pushing the kickoff back on an unsportsmanlike penalty. It aided in a 52-yard Kawamura kickoff return that led to the field goal.
Ramseyer came up huge on the ensuing drive, notching back-to-back sacks on second and third down to force a punt. St. Francis set up shop on the Monrovia 48 and drove to a 13-10 lead with 3:22 to go in the half. Keyed by a Kawamura 27-yard catch, the drive culminated when the back scored from three yards out on a pitch play.
St. Francis must now take on the difficult task of leaving the Friday night heartbreak in the rear view as it prepares for Cathedral and the start of Mission League play. Bonds said after Saturday’s film session, the Golden Knights would leave the nonleague loss behind.
“Everyone has a clean slate on Monday, everybody starts [league] 0-0,” Bonds said. “I still like my team.”