First published in the Dec. 2 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
The St. Francis High School football team’s memorable postseason run did not have the fairy-tale ending it hoped for with powerhouse Long Beach Poly cruising past the Golden Knights, 38-7, in the CIF Southern Section Division 4 championship game at Jim Bonds Stadium last Saturday.
Playing the role of Goliath, the No. 1-seeded Jackrabbits controlled the game from the start with a dominant ground game and up-tempo offense to claim their 20th CIF crown.
Long Beach Poly ran for a total 385 yards and was led by junior running back Devin Samples, who garnered 219 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries.
“We had some chances in the first half to get a few scores and we let it slip by, which you can’t do against them,” said first-year SFHS head coach Dean Herrington, who took over the program following the death of his friend and longtime Golden Knights coach Jim Bonds. Herrington guided the football team to its first CIF title game since 2017. “We had to play near perfect to play with these guys because they’re so fast and physical.”
St. Francis (10-3 overall), which was seeking its first CIF football title since 1964, got off to a rough start on the opening drive of the game with a lost fumble on the third play. The Jackrabbits (11-3 overall) capitalized on the turnover and took an early 7-0 lead on a 4-yard touchdown run from Samples.
The Golden Knights weren’t fazed and fired back in the ensuing drive. A remarkable one-handed 56-yard catch from junior Jet McCullough put the home squad in the red zone and helped set up a 20-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jack Jacobs to Dylan Bell that tied the game, 7-7, with 6:07 left in the first quarter.
“What an incredible catch by him,” said Long Beach Poly head coach Stephen Barbee. “They made some good plays and they’re a very good team.”
The inspired play seemingly rubbed off on the St. Francis defense, which came up with a big play two minutes later when Diego Jimenez intercepted a pass from Shea Kuykendall in the end zone.
However, the Golden Knights weren’t able to take advantage of the turnover and punted after a three-and-out.
Then, Barbee kept the ball on the ground and continuously fed Samples the football. The standout running back tallied 132 yards and three scores in the first half alone to help the visitors build a 21-7 lead.
“We executed and settled down,” Barbee said. “We knew it was going to be a hyped environment. They’re at home and they have a great crowd here. They gave us everything we could handle from trick plays, reverse passes to fake field goals. They didn’t leave anything [out]. My hats off to them.”
St. Francis, who shared the league title with Loyola High of Los Angeles during the regular season, was close to getting back into the game and swinging the momentum their way just before halftime. From the 8-yard line with seconds remaining in the second quarter, the Golden Knights fooled the Jackrabbits with a fake field goal. Holder Tyler Cofre dropped back and lobbed a pass into the end zone, but the ball was inches away from Preston Jernegan’s fingertips.
“We missed a pass right before that that could have been a touchdown,” Herrington said. “We worked on the fake field goal all week. He was wide open but we just couldn’t execute it. We thought we needed some big plays, so we had a few trick plays and hit a couple of them. We just missed that one.”
Herrington felt he had to get creative because of Long Beach Poly’s athleticism on both sides of the ball.
“They’re able to play a lot of man-to-man [coverage], which means they can load the box against the run. We thought we could have some runs against them, but once we got behind we had to throw, and that’s what they wanted to happen. We barely missed some balls and you can’t do that against these guys. Their talent level has no business being in Division 4, but that’s just the way it works.”
The Jackrabbits held St. Francis to 194 yards on offense and kept senior standout Max Garrison in check. The San Diego State-bound running back was limited to 23 yards on seven carries and three receptions for 48 yards.
“We just didn’t get it done tonight; [that’s the] bottom line,” Garrison said. “It happens sometimes; the ball just doesn’t fall your way.”
Garrison added that the program is in good hands with Jacobs, who completed 11 of 21 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown.
Despite falling short of delivering the school’s first CIF championship since 1964, Herrington said his team “exceeded expectations” and lauded the 19 seniors on the roster.
“[The seniors] did a great job. I wish they were back next year for another chance. They’re not only great players, but they have great character,” Herrington said. “Early in the season, if someone had told me we’d be in the finals, I would have said, ‘I don’t know about that.’ Our kids improved, worked so hard and our coaches did a great job. To make it this far is pretty special.”