July 14, 2024
MOUNTAIN VIEW — St. Francis could not have scripted a better start to the 2023 season if it tried. But it didn’t take long for Helix-La Mesa to burn that script up entirely. After a Lancers threw the game’s first punch with a quick touchdown, the San Diego-area powerhouse responded with 25 unanswered points in the

MOUNTAIN VIEW — St. Francis could not have scripted a better start to the 2023 season if it tried.

But it didn’t take long for Helix-La Mesa to burn that script up entirely.

After a Lancers threw the game’s first punch with a quick touchdown, the San Diego-area powerhouse responded with 25 unanswered points in the first half to roll to a 45-21 win on Friday night in Mountain View.

St. Francis had a dream start to their season opener, forcing a three-and-out on defense and seeing star junior running back Kingston Keanaaina need just five carries to go 42 yards and ram his way into the endzone.

“First game, we don’t know if we’re any good, we don’t know anything,” St. Francis coach Greg Calcagno said. “That was great, it was exactly how you want it … And the rest of the half didn’t go that way.”

Helix (2-0) coach Damaja Jones felt that the quick bully-ball touchdown from St. Francis was actually a wake up call for his team, which had flown up to the Bay Area on Friday morning for the evening game.

“It’s really hard to emulate that type of physicality in practice,” Jones said. “You want to protect your team, but at the same time, you want to match their physicality and you can’t do it. We knew what they were going to do and we just had to adjust, and our boys did an outstanding job adjusting.”

That the Highlanders did, scoring on their next three drives —with quarterback Ryland Jessee tallying a passing and rushing touchdown, each with a two-point conversion after, and a field goal — and forcing back-to-back three-and-outs to push the lead to 19-7.

St. Francis adjusted to the aerial attack, with junior quarterback Aaron Knapp — who was making his first start after beating cancer in the offseason — helping the Lancers move the ball to the red zone twice in the second quarter.

But with 4:20 left in the first half, Keanaaina fumbled inside the 10-yard line for a turnover. The Lancers marched back down again to the Helix 7-yard line with 27 seconds left, but Knapp threw a pass to a receiver who slipped, with Helix defensive back Carter Ross catching the pass and racing 99 yards to the other endzone for a pick-six.

“I feel like, after the first 50 yards, the adrenaline’s not there anymore,” Ross said. “I’m just glad I was able to beat all of the angles out [from the St. Francis players] and nobody was able to catch me.”

Instead of the Lancers cutting the lead down to a single score, the Highlanders went into half up 25-7.

“That changed the whole dynamic of the game,” Jones said. “It was the play of the game.”

Helix would tack on three more touchdowns in the second half, with Jessee finishing the night 11-for-17 for 154 yards and two passing touchdowns while adding five carries for 34 yards and a rushing touchdown. The Highlanders’ workhorse running back Kevin Allen III added 93 rushing yards and a touchdown of his own on 24 carries.

For St. Francis, Knapp responded with two second half passing touchdowns, connecting with Mack Mrowka for a 19-yard score in the third and finding Perrion Williams for a 2-yard score in the fourth. He finished the night 14-of-27 for 143 yards, and while he acknowledged it was “cool to be on the field” after beating cancer, he was far more focused on what he felt he could improve on.

“I think we showed a lot of good signs, but there were mistakes all over the field and a lot of it was on me,” Knapp said. “My ball placement could have been better on a lot of passes and I just think I need to have more composure back there.”

While Knapp was disappointed in his own play, his teammates and coaches continue to be amazed at his resilience to be on the field at all — not to mention being a key part of the Lancers’ future, too.

“Aaron is the best leader I’ve ever been on a team with,” said Keanaaina, who finished with 22 carries for 127 yards and the early touchdown. “He’s inspirational, especially with what he went through and he was able to lead the team. Yeah, he’s our No. 1 leader.”

Calcagno added, “You almost forget that he’s been through all that he’s been through. I tried to talk to him before the game and just say, ‘Hey, I know you’ve been through a lot, let’s just go play football.’ Easier said than done, right? He tried it, but he’s so good, he wants to make every play. He does some really good things and we’re glad we’ve got him for two more years.”

The Lancers got an clear reminder of Helix’s pedigree from the presence of a famous alum. Former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith was in Mountain View to watch his alma mater play, going out for the coin toss and staying to watch the whole game.

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And from here, the tests won’t get any easier from here for St. Francis. They’ll head to San Joaquin Section stalwart Monterey Trail next week, then host Bay Area powerhouse De La Salle the week after. They’ll also face the reigning NorCal Open representative and their West Catholic Athletic League rival in Serra at the end of September, and the rest of the WCAL won’t be easy, too.

“This is St. Francis football,” Keanaaina said. “We get the best competition we can get.”

That’s exactly why the Lancers know they’ll need to quickly fix what went wrong on Friday night.

“That’s a very good team,” Calcagno said. “We scheduled those types of teams on purpose to get us better and we knew going in. How good are we? We don’t know. I like a lot of the stuff we saw, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“Hopefully, those were the first game mistakes and that’s not how our season is going to go.”

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