Opeti Fangupo was among the last Lancers to leave the field. With his head down and helmet in hand, the two-way starter plodded toward the locker room at Independence High in disbelief.
Did it really just happen again?
For the second year in a row, his St. Francis High football team suffered an agonizing defeat in the Central Coast Section Open Division II final. In double overtime, Valley Christian edged the Lancers 31-30 – the same score as last year’s loss to Serra.
When Fangupo emerged from the somber locker room nearly 20 minutes later, he was still trying to process what occurred that chilly Saturday night in San Jose.
“This is definitely a tough one to swallow,” said the senior, who rushed for a game-high 115 yards and a pair of first-half touchdowns. “There are a lot of heavy eyes in there, but we’ll get through it.”
Unlike a year ago – when St. Francis nearly overcame a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter but failed to convert a two-point pass with 1:26 to go – the Lancers watched the lead slip away Saturday.
Top seed St. Francis (11-2) held a 17-7 advantage midway through the third quarter after Michael Leahy booted a 34-yard field goal. But No. 2 Valley (11-2) – which fell to the Lancers 7-3 in West Catholic Athletic League play two months earlier – didn’t flinch.
The Warriors answered with a 14-play drive that produced a field goal late in the third quarter, then forced three turnovers in the fourth – the second of which led to the game-tying touchdown.
“You cannot make those mistakes and come up with a victory,” said St. Francis coach Greg Calcagno, whose team committed a total of four turnovers, the first leading to a Valley Christian touchdown in the opening quarter. “We’ve got to own them and we’ve got to get better.”
Four plays after the Lancers lost that fumble (their third of the game), Valley Christian’s Deven Vanderbilt caught a 55-yard touchdown toss from Cory Taylor. The play was a double whammy for St. Francis; standout defensive back Maurice Wilmer suffered a leg injury and did not return.
“That really hurt our defense,” linebacker Fangupo said.
It didn’t show right away, as the Lancers’ vaunted defense stopped Valley’s last two drives of the quarter. Nick Juran came up with St. Francis’ second interception (Wilmer had the first) and on the final play of the period, Mose Vavao produced the team’s third sack (Josh Pakola made the other two) to guarantee overtime.
After winning the coin toss, St. Francis elected to play defense first in OT (each team starts at the other’s 10-yard line and gets four downs to score a touchdown or field goal). On third down, Taylor connected with tight end Skylar Loving-Black for a 9-yard touchdown, and Lucas Ramirez nailed the extra point to push the Warriors’ lead to 24-17.
The Lancers matched that when Ryan Daly threw a 5-yard fade to receiver Evan Williams in the right side of the end zone. Leahy’s kick tied the game, forcing a second OT.
St. Francis got the ball first this time, and Daly again found Williams on third down. Double covered, the senior hauled in the 4-yard pass on the left side of the end zone.
“He’s pretty unbelievable,” Calcagno said of Williams, who caught a game-high six passes for 135 yards. “He’s our guy and we’re going to throw it up to him, and he finds a way to make plays each and every week.”
Valley’s Coleman Kyles blocked the extra point, however, giving his team a chance to win the game on its possession. Thomas Dunham followed a 4-yard run with a 6-yarder across the goal line and Ramirez drilled the pressure-packed kick to seal the victory.
“We knew it would come down to special teams, and they came up big,” Fangupo said. “They blocked (the extra point), and we couldn’t do the same.”
But all is not lost for the Lancers – they have qualified for the Northern California playoffs. St. Francis is slated to visit Del Oro (12-1) of Loomis 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Division 2-AA regional championship bowl. The winner advances to next weekend’s state championships in Norwalk.
“That’s the good thing – that we’re not done,” Calcagno said. “... We’re not very excited right now, but we will be.”