St. Francis' Tyler Johnston (17) separates St. John's Cheatham Norrils from the ball. The Knights improved to 4-0.
The difference between rivals St. John's and St. Francis Friday night proved to be the width of a hand.
The hand belonged to Knights' senior Shaun Solly, who blocked an extra-point attempt by the Titans with just 22 seconds left in the game to preserve his team's 7-6 victory in front of roughly 8,000 fans at the Glass Bowl.
The win was important for the Knights, who were ranked 10th in the most recent Division II state poll. It helped them earn a victory in their City League opener and improve their record to 4-0 overall. They also snapped a three-game losing streak to St. John's, which saw its record fall to 2-2.
But only one thing mattered to veteran St. Francis coach Dick Cromwell.
"I didn't care about [being undefeated or winning the City League opener] - beating St. John's is enough," he said.
It looked as if St. Francis was poised to do just that as it led 7-0 with just 5:31 to play. But the Titans got the ball on their own 33 and methodically drove down the field, using passes of 11 and 18 yards from sophomore quarterback Kent Kern to junior Zach Steinmetz sandwiched around a 16-yard run by Kern to push to the Knights' 29.
It was slow going from there, but eventually Kern punched the ball into the end zone from a yard out with 22 seconds to play.
"The kids didn't hang their heads when we were down," St. John's coach Doug Pearson said of his team's 13-play, 67-yard drive. "We got the ball back, drove down and scored.
"I thought about going for two - but we just needed to execute a simple extra point, and we didn't do it."
That's because Solly found a seam in the Titans' line and blocked Brandon Smith's kick.
"We knew we still had one play," Solly said. "There was a tiny crease, so I tried to hit it as hard as I could. And I got lucky.
"The theme of our defense was bending but not breaking - and not giving up."
The Knights controlled the game most of the way, limiting the Titans to just 158 yards of total offense before their final drive. Meanwhile senior tailback Lee Lukasik ran for a game-high 137 yards on 24 rushes as St. Francis rolled up 271 yards of total offense, including 219 on the ground.
"Our defense played very well," Cromwell said. "We used a ball-control mode. I know some of our fans may want us to pass more, but you've got to play the game the best way you can to try and win."
Both teams saw first-half scoring opportunities go unfulfilled.
The Knights had a 22-yard field goal attempt blocked by St. John's junior Nate White late in the first quarter. The Titans had a 27-yard field goal attempt by Smith go left of the uprights early in the second quarter.
Both teams also had turnovers that thwarted drives - including a St. John's fumble on the Knights' 8-yard line that preceded St. Francis' touchdown drive.
That march, which started late in the third period, covered 92 yards and took just eight plays, the biggest being a 51-yard pass play from senior quarterback Tyler Johnston to senior Scott Loy. Johnston capped the drive by pushing into the end zone from a yard out with 1:22 left in the quarter.
"We made too many mistakes," Pearson said. "We missed a field goal, and we fumbled at the 8-yard line. You can't do that against a team like this.
"That was a typical ugly St. John's-St. Francis game."
This time it just happened to have a beautiful ending for the Knights - with a hand from Solly.
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