St. Francis basketball

St. Francis' Evan Crawford (right) has helped change the perception and culture of the basketball program. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer) (March 6, 2014)

When the St. Francis High basketball team takes the court Friday afternoon at Azusa Pacific University’s Felix Event Center, the Golden Knights will have a chance to not only make history, but to continue a process of remaking an identity.

The second-seeded Golden Knights will face fourth-seeded Oak Park in the CIF Southern Section Division III-A championship game at 5:30 p.m. in the squad’s first-ever title visit.

Regardless of whether St. Francis (19-11) is victorious Friday, the program has certainly progressed from how it was perceived only a few years ago.

“When Jeff Stephens and I came to St. Francis six years ago, we were aware that we had to change the reputation,” said St. Francis co-Coach Ray O’Brien, who splits the duties with Stephens. “It’s always been a football school and our goal was to try to put it on equal footing one step at a time.”

Stephens and O’Brien inherited a squad that finished 10-15 in the 2007-08 season and hadn’t reached the postseason since the 2004-05 campaign.

Yet, success didn’t happen immediately, as Stephens and O’Brien posted four straight sub-.500 seasons to begin their tenure, which hardly seemed like a departure from previous years.

“We knew that we were going to have to fight the good fight in terms of changing a culture and preparing a team to play in the always-difficult Mission League,” O’Brien said. “You look at the talent in that league and it’s amazing.

“A lot of our success comes from what we’ve learned being on [La Cañada High boys’ basketball coach] Tom Hofman’s bench and a lot of credit goes to Jeff. He’s a fighter and pusher and made those practices tough. But that toughness and that tone that he set has changed who this team is and how it plays.”

A young St. Francis squad also benefited from the transfer of a nearby talent.

“When I decided to come to St. Francis the decision was more of a family decision than anything,” said Golden Knights senior guard Kyle Leufroy, a Pasadena resident who lives five minutes from Muir High. “The team wasn’t that good, but there were some young guys I knew and had played with in Evan [Crawford] and Noah [Willerford].”

The fit seemed right for Leufroy, who transferred after his freshman year at La Salle and joined a solid, but inexperienced core.

The fruits of that decision and of the growth of the program has shown the last two seasons.

St. Francis posted its first winning season under Stephens and O’Brien last year when the team was 16-14 overall, tied for fifth in the Mission League with a 4-8 league mark and advanced to the quarterfinals, where the Golden Knights fell to Oak Park, 64-42.

“We started something last year, we started a change in the way people thought of St. Francis basketball,” Crawford said. “I thought it was pretty refreshing. People know about football and soccer, but basketball, we haven’t been considered on that same level.”

This season, St. Francis won 15 regular-season contests, the most since 2004-05. The team also racked up victories against notable programs such as Renaissance Academy, Mark Keppel, Campbell Hall and La Cañada during nonleague play with Mission League wins versus Crespi (twice), Sherman Oaks Notre Dame and an upset 54-46 triumph versus league runner-up Chaminade on Jan. 27.

“When you play in the Mission League and every game is so tight and contested, you’re a play or two from winning or losing in almost every game,” O’Brien said. “The competitiveness of that league has helped mold us into a stronger, tougher and more physically-prepared team that knows it has to play defense to win.”

St. Francis hit the pinnacle of its success, to this point, when it defeated La Cañada, 56-53, on Friday in a sold-out and electric atmosphere at Maranatha High in what was the Golden Knights’ first-ever trip to the semifinals.

“It was an amazing experience and it was great to see the excitement,” Golden Knights sophomore Dylan Crawford said. “Our fans and the school were talking about basketball all week and even after that game. We proved that this was a different program.”

Perhaps all that remains now is winning a championship.

“Honestly, nobody is thinking about the past anymore,” Leufroy said. “For the first time in school history we’re in the finals and we’re changing what people think about St. Francis.

“Our goal since before the season began was to win a championship. I guess we changed some minds, too.”