Throughout its history, the St. Francis de Sales football program has been one of the best in the area as well as the state of Ohio.
The Knights notched two state championships —in 1984 and 2001 — under former longtime coach Dick Cromwell, and were also runners-up once. There were 18 City League titles between 1965 and 2004, and 13 playoff appearances, the last being an 11-2 run to the Division II regional final in Cromwell’s final season in 2009.
In the three seasons that followed, however, St. Francis went 10-20 overall, including an 0-9 record against top rivals Central Catholic, St. John’s Jesuit, and Whitmer.
This sub-par stretch led some to assume that the Knights were no longer a major player, and might continue to struggle in the new Three Rivers Athletic Conference.
But second-year coach Chris Hedden has St. Francis back in the right direction.
The Knights closed the regular season at 8-2, and placed second in the TRAC at 6-1 after being picked to finish fifth.
“When I walked in the door I knew the tradition and what they had done,” Hedden said. “The playoff appearances, and the state championships that they had won. I was excited about taking a job where there had been success, and where football was so important.”
Included this season were victories over Southview (21-18) in the season opener, and TRAC wins over St. John’s (30-13) and Whitmer (21-14).
And, best of all, the Knights qualified for the 14th time to the playoffs, and have a Division II first-round game at third-ranked Avon (10-0) at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
The Knights’ two losses were convincing, but both came against 10-0 teams — Bedford (56-25) and Central (41-9).
“These kids had not experienced much winning,” Hedden said. “The current senior class was in eighth grade the last time St. Francis went to the playoffs.
“We tried to capitalize on that Southview win. That was a big win for us. Obviously we were disappointed after the Bedford game, but little did we know Bedford would be where they’re at as an undefeated football team.
“The big game was St. John’s. That put us at 3-1, and the kids started believing, and thinking we could do something special.”
Last year there were some growing pains. After a season-opening win over Southview, the Knights lost the next five, and finished 3-7 overall. Included was a humbling, late-season, 60-0 pounding by Central.
But for senior team captains David Nees, Jack Kulka, Zach Uram, John Fudacz and Tyler Knitz, the 2012 season is in the past and was merely a launching point for what they have accomplished this year.
“It was a big change with a whole new coaching staff,” said Nees, a quarterback and middle linebacker who is the team’s only full-time two-way starter. “The expectations were a lot different, so adjusting to that was a big challenge. This year, we knew what to expect, and we’re a little more comfortable with the coaches.
“We put in a lot of hard work in the offseason, and our guys are really believing in each other, and in the program. As soon as last season ended, we started working in the weight room and conditioning. All of that work is paying off this season.”
Nees is 88 0f 148 passing for 1,039 yards and eight touchdowns, and is the Knights’ second leading rusher with 160 carries for 746 yards and a team-high 16 TDs.
“For a lot of us that was our first varsity experience last year,” said Kulka, the starting center and a backup on the defensive line. “We learned what it takes to win. We needed to work really hard in the offseason to get a winning record.
“One of our biggest things this year has been our brotherhood. We have a good senior leadership. We have a good bond and a chemistry on the team.
It’s really a great feeling. We celebrate the wins, but then have to make sure we stay hungry for the next win.”
This season, the senior influence is evident. Eight starting offensive positions and five more on defense are manned by seniors.
“We’re just more familiar with everything and it’s easier to execute this year,” said Uram, a starting linebacker. “We’re closer as a team. The practices are faster and more intense, and we’re more confident this year. We’ve bought in, and everybody’s committed.
“The energy is there and the focus is there. Those past seasons are over with. We try to keep the focus on this year. The confidence on the team is high right now going into the playoffs.”
Another senior leader is receiver Andrew Bonfiglio, who leads the team with 37 catches for 489 yards, and has scored seven TDs.
Fudacz is a starting linebacker and part-time tight end, and Knitz starts at offensive tackle.
The most notable junior contributor is the Knights’ most dynamic offensive weapon — running back Lamar Carswell. A dangerous combination of speed, power and elusiveness, Carswell has carried 177 times for 1,248 yards and scored 13 TDs.
“Lamar has had a great season,” Hedden said. “What he brings to our offense is the ability to hit the home run. He’s very explosive and elusive. “What’s impressed me most is his physicality. He’s not getting tackled by one person. He’s moving the pile and running guys over, and he also has that speed and explosion to get to the edge and take it the distance.”
The Knights’ coach credits members of last year’s team for setting the table for this year’s success.
“Last year the foundation was set,” Hedden said. “It was a change for the kids, and I credit the senior class from last year for building that foundation. They bought in, and they worked their tails off the whole season.
“It was different for them offensively and defensively, and a different commitment from a weightlifting and condition standpoint. They were great leaders. Even though they didn’t win, they set the tone for what the program could do in future years.”
A 1990 Tiffin Columbian graduate, Hedden was an assistant coach there before spending a season at Tiffin University, then joining the University of Toledo staff as a graduate assistant in 1996. After four years at Northern Iowa, he rejoined the UT staff from 2001-08, and moved over to Akron in 2009.
This year’s team may not be overloaded with talent, but Hedden credits the players’ ability to learn and adapt to each opponent.