By Brian Reed-Baiotto, Sports Editor
Every program says it.
And in many cases, it’s true.
For the St. Francis football program, though, it’s tangible.
The Golden Knights are every bit as much a family as they are a football team.
They are also the premier athletics program on their La Canada campus.
A Friday night inside Jim Bonds Stadium is a happening, especially during Angelus League or postseason games.
Having covered them for seven-plus years, St. Francis rarely has more raw athletes on the field than an opponent, but they’ve found a way to win more than 70-percent of their games over that stretch.
They’ve also earned three trips to the CIF-SS title game.
In a 24-year career, this writer has never seen a football program treat its captains with such reverence.
And it’s for that reason that many are brought to tears when they’re selected by their peers to represent this SFHS program.
The 2023 quartet of ‘Golden Knights’ includes Tyler Cofre, John Calmette, Preston Jernegan and Phillip Ocon.
SFHS has had D-1 caliber athletes and game changers like Daniel Scott, Greg Dulcich and Max Garrison, but more often than not, the program relies heavily on good players who work their butts off, accept their roles, and happily work in concert with their teammates to make SFHS the best team they can be.
For two decades, the late-great Jim Bonds curated the recipe for success mentioned above, and third-year coach Dean Herrington has stepped in, and the program hasn’t skipped a beat.
The 8-2 regular season mark in 2023 included a share of the Angelus League title with Loyola.
St. Francis (4-1) fell, 37-32, in week 10 at St. Paul, but the Golden Knights had already defeated the Cubs in the Angelus League opener.
It was their first victory over Loyola since 2009.
Looking back at the regular season, SFHS was less than two TD’s from being 10-0.
And while there is a long list of contributors in 2023, many of whom we’ll mention in this story, there are four guys who have played starring roles.
St. Francis’ quarterback and running back, John Sanders and John Calmette, respectively, have been vital to the Golden Knights success.
As have two-way stars Preston Jernegan and Phillip Ocon.
Calmette, Jernegan and Ocon are seniors, and Sanders, a junior, is in his first year running the Golden Knights offense.
John Sanders is having a remarkable 2023 season.
Sanders took over the quarterbacking duties for a graduating Jack Jacobs, who led the program to back-to-back title-game appearances.
And it would be hard to believe that Sanders hasn’t exceeded expectations.
No. 4 made it clear in his varsity start at quarterback that he was ready to lead the Golden Knights offense.
Sanders went 18-of-31 for 248 yards, including five TD’s.
He also had a team-high 101 yards rushing and one score in St. Francis’ 58-13 victory over visiting West Ranch.
To prove his value, in the eight SFHS wins, Sanders has been the key offensive figure.
But in games he’s struggled (losses to Millikan & St. Paul) Sanders didn’t score through the air or on the ground, and he tossed a pair of picks.
Over the long haul, however, Sanders is playing at an MVP level.
He’s 131-of-219 (60-percent completion ratio) for 1,810 yards, with 20 TD’s and eight picks.
Sanders also has a program-best 750 rushing yards on 122 carries, and eight TD’s.
If that weren’t enough, he caught a 12-yard TD pass from his freshman brother, Shawn Sanders.
To go along with his on-the-field prowess, Sanders has a 4.16 GPA in the classroom.
Sanders said his favorite team moment of 2023 was the September 29th victory over Loyola in front of a sold-out crowd, and as to his top individual memory? It was the honor of being able to represent the St. Francis football program every Friday night.
Without asking, Sanders’ favorite game of the regular season had to be the 41-25 Angelus League victory over Cathedral.
In the win, he tossed 15-and-65-yard TD passes to Jernegan and Tyler Cofre, respectively.
He had TD runs of 26 and 37 yards, and as mentioned, Sanders caught a 12-yard TD pass from his little brother.
As of yet, Sanders said he hasn’t gotten any attention from college programs, but if he continues on this pace, he’s going to play college football somewhere.
Sanders credits his father, Tracey, as having the biggest influence during his ascension as a football player, but he also said that his entire family has been an invaluable support system over his 17 years on this planet.
** At the bottom of this story, you’ll be able to read the answers to questions I asked Sanders, Calmette, Ocon and Jernegan.
John Calmette is someone that many would consider an old-school football player.
He’s undersized, tough as nails and he produces results like he’s 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds.
Unlike SFHS running backs in recent memory (Devyn Turner, Max Garrison, Kevin Armstead & Elijah Washington), Calmette isn’t going to break off an 80-yard TD run at any moment.
In spite of that, though, the SFHS senior has found a way to provide game-changing performances to help this team win eight games.
Listed at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, Calmette doesn’t intend to continue his football career at the collegiate level in 2024.
But he’s fully content in going to war with his brothers in the brown and gold uniforms one more time (until being eliminated or winning CIF), and then moving on with his life.
If you don’t know Calmette, he’s the guy wearing jersey number 5, and he sticks out because he looks like he’s either withstood or dished out a beating.
Calmette is so respected by his peers that he was elected as one of the four SFHS captains.
And this dude is clutch.
Of his team-high 14 rushing TD’s, eight came in Angelus League games.
Calmette had three rushing TD’s versus both Loyola and St. Paul, and he scored twice against Cathedral.
He’d likely have more, but he missed the showdown with Paraclete due to an injury.
In 2023, Calmette has carried the ball 120 times for 582 yards and those 14 TD’s.
He’s also caught 25 passes for 241 yards.
Calmette is versatile as well.
In 2022, they used Calmette on defense, and he tallied 59 tackles and one interception to go with his 318 rushing and 197 receiving yards, and a combined five TD’s.
Oh yeah, and then there’s his 4.14 GPA to prove he works just as hard in the classroom as he does on a football field.
Calmette said following in the footsteps of his brothers, Michael and Andrew, has made his time at St. Francis all the more special.
When asked his top personal moment of 2023, John said, “My favorite individual memory happened to be a part of my favorite team memory. It was scoring three touchdowns in our win against our rivals from Loyola. Two weeks prior to that game, I sprained my MCL at Sultana, which put my availability for the Loyola game in jeopardy.”
Calmette also hit .286 last season for the St. Francis baseball program.
He’s one of those character guys that every coach in any sport would want and need.
Preston Jernegan is nothing short of a beast.
With his athleticism, and at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, there are moments where Jernegan looks like a man amongst boys.
And Preston became a consequential contributor early in his prep career.
In 2021, as a sophomore, Jernegan totaled 30 catches for 359 yards and one receiving TD.
But it was his 81 tackles and two sacks at middle linebacker that got people’s attention.
It led the program, and it was 29 more than senior, Duncan Sprengel.
Fast forward to 2022, and Jernegan’s 132 tackles was 61 more than his next closest teammate, Julian Navarro, who had 71.
He also picked five passes that year, and that was good enough to tie Jett McCullough for the team lead.
That gets us to 2023.
Jernegan’s 62 tackles are five back of Navarro, who leads the Golden Knights with 67.
Through the first 10 games of this season, Jernegan has taken his offensive production to another level.
He’s the team leader in catches (40), receiving yards & (601) and TD catches (12).
In the Sanders portion of this story, I mentioned that he tossed five TD’s in the season opener, but what you might not know is that four of the five went to Jernegan.
The Sanders-Jernegan duo became one of the best quarterback-tight end (or receiver) combos in the SGV area.
Jernegan said his older brother Evan, who was also a standout at SFHS, and currently plays at Valparaiso, set the blueprint for Preston on and off of the football field.
Jernegan had a number of offers, but his 4.14 GPA helped him earn a spot to compete for and attend Princeton in the fall of 2024.
Phillip Ocon has been a rock for this program.
And don’t let that tummy sticking out of his shirt fool you, this kid is an outstanding and versatile athlete.
Unfortunately, offensive and defensive linemen rarely get the credit they deserve by those of us in the media.
But apparently being a four-year two-way starter for a great program got some attention, because Ocon will attend and compete for Colorado State University.
It’s obviously impossible to keep stats for those who serve and protect on the offensive line, but his quarterbacks and running backs, past and present, have always credited Ocon and his buddies on the o-line for much of their success.
At 6-foot-4 and 295 pounds, Ocon has been a nightmare for opposing offensive and defensive lineman, and his value to this program has been immeasurable.
His ability to shine on both sides of the ball and the way in which he goes about his business are just two of the many reasons his teammates selected him as one of the four captains.
On the defensive end, Ocon had 46 tackles and one sack last year, and 36 tackles and one sack this season.
As mentioned, though, there is no way to statistically mention how many times he opened up holes for the offense or clogged them for the defense.
Ocon said his favorite individual moment was beating Loyola during week one of Angelus League play.
“My entire family was there, and I played every single offensive and defensive snap. Just winning that game after putting everything I could’ve possibly given was a great feeling. As a team, it was my sophomore year when we beat Steele Canyon in overtime. I was so tired that I couldn’t even celebrate. A teammate of mine and I just looked at each other and we hugged and laughed.”
Ocon is all about family and he loves and appreciates them all, and that includes his boys and their coaches at St. Francis.
Ocon wanted to make sure we mentioned his brothers on the offensive and defensive lines, including Aaron Briseno, Noah McElroy Nizam Nama, Andrew Gurlekian, Alex Juarez, Thomas Di Luccia, Griffin Ulrich and Max Suzich.
Ocon heaped praise on his father, Alberto Ocon, for his impact on Phillip as both a football player and a young man.
“My dad (Alberto Ocon) has put an unbelievable amount of knowledge into me about the game and as a person. From the eighth grade, he got me ready for what high school football was going to be like and how to be successful in the recruiting process. My dad has always been in my corner helping me work and make crucial decisions, none of which I regret to this day.”
When his playing days are over, Ocon has two avenues that he hopes to traverse.
Said Phillip Ocon: “I definitely want to get into coaching and give back all the knowledge given to me by so many great people and coaches. But I also want to get into medicine, specifically pediatrics. When I was growing up, finding a great pediatrician for my family was a bit of an issue, so I want to help make a change where others don’t have that same experience.”
As good as the big four have played, St. Francis isn’t St. Francis without a roster full of character-driven young men with selfless mindsets.
Some of the many contributors include Tyler Cofre (16 catches for 256 yards & three TD’s, 19 tackles & one pick), JT Martin (15 receptions for 297 yards & one TD), Tim Murphy (16 catches for 208 yards, 20 tackles & two picks), Julian Navarro (67 tackles & three sacks), Thomas Delcuccia (48 tackles & three sacks) and Jamie Lawyer (29 tackles & four picks, three catches for 77 yards & one TD).
Up next: The Golden Knights travel to top-seeded San Juan Hills (9-1) in the first round of the CIF-SS Division 3 playoffs.
To view a large photo gallery by Ryan Tomey, click on the Facebook link here: Facebook
Lastly, I asked Sanders, Calmette, Jernegan and Ocon to answer the following: What makes you most proud to be a member of this football program? How has your role changed? And how do you hope to be remembered by your younger teammates when you’re gone?
St. Francis quarterback, John Sanders: “What makes it special to be part of this program is the support I get from my
teammates, coaches, and parents. My role has grown tremendously, especially this year being the starting quarterback. I
need to be the best I can be in order for our team to be successful. When I am no longer playing football, I would like to run a business of some kind like my dad. When I am no longer playing football with my younger teammates, I hope they remember me as a fun teammate and a great leader. I also hope that they take some of the lessons I may have taught them and pass them onto their younger teammates.”
St. Francis running back, John Calmette: “This program puts a lot of emphasis on not only winning, but also building high character. St Francis football has been one of my best teachers in life, and I take pride in being a part of this family. As a senior, and a team captain, I got the starting running back position, and I’ve developed into more of a leader than a learner. Fortunately, I had excellent role models in guys like Max Garrison and Myles Shannon who helped get me to where I am now. After I graduate from St Francis, I want to be remembered for my grit and toughness that I brought to the field with me. I’ve always felt like I’ve played a little bit bigger than I actually am, and I attribute that to the effort I put in on every play. I hope my teammates remember me as a guy who kept his head down and put in the work to achieve a long-term goal. Off the field, I want to be remembered as a good locker room guy and a true brother to my teammates, and someone who was able to loosen up the locker room when needed.”
St. Francis tight end/linebacker, Preston Jernegan: “My role is being a leader and an example for our younger guys on the team by making plays and showing them how to be comfortable on the field. I’ve been on varsity since my freshman year when my brother was a senior. I played linebacker my freshman year and then both linebacker and tight end the rest of the way. I like the fact that we’re being held to a higher standard than most of the programs we play, because it’s an enriching thing to be part of. I’ve been the Mike linebacker since my sophomore year, so I have been in a leadership role for some time. As each year comes, so does more responsibility. I’m going to take football as far as I can, and then I’d like to work in a management position around the NFL. I hope they remember me as a guy who showed them how to have fun while being disciplined on the field.”
St. Francis offensive & defensive lineman, Phillip Ocon: “Being a part of this program means everything to me. I’m one of the last guys who got to be play for Coach (Jim) Bonds. I’ve grown so much in this program and so many older guys helped me along the way, so I feel the need to help the younger guys now that I’m older and keep the culture of the program alive. As I got to my junior and senior years, the amount of downs and the vocal leadership has changed tremendously. As an underclassman, I played hard and listened to the older leaders of the team like Duncan Sprengal and Max Garrison. Now I play every down I can, and I try to lead my younger teammates to success as best I can, just like those guys led me. I want to be a guy who’s remembered as one of the hardest working and most physical players. Obviously, I want to be one of the greats, but I want guys to remember me as an example of a guy who never quit on a play and gave 100-percent in the weight room, film room, and on the field.”
2023 St. Francis Schedule-Results:
8/18: St. Francis 58, West Ranch 13
8/25: St. Francis 34, Mira Costa 21
9/1: LB Millikan 17, St. Francis 10
9/8: St. Francis 45, St. Pius 14
9/15: St. Francis 42, Sultana 13
9/29: St. Francis 25, Loyola 21
10/6: St. Francis 28, Paraclete 21 (2OT)
10/13: St. Francis 41, Cathedral 25
10/20: St. Francis 42, Crespi 27
10/27: St. Paul 37, St. Francis 32
11/3: St. Francis (8-2) at San Juan Hills (9-1)
Angelus League Standings:
St. Francis (8-2, 4-1)
Loyola (5-5, 4-1)
St. Paul (5-5, 3-2)
Paraclete (7-3, 2-3)
Cathedral (4-6, 2-3)
Crespi (2-8, 0-5)
St. Francis Team Records:
2023: 8-2, 4-1
2022: 10-4, 4-1
2021: 10-3, 2-1
2020: 4-2, 2-1
John Calmette Career Stats:
2021: 19 carries for 134 and no TD’s; 3 catches for 7 yards; 29 tackles
2022: 71-318-4 TD’s;19-197 rec yards & 1TD; 59 tackles & 1 INT
2023: 120-582-14 TD’s; 25-241-0
John Sanders Career Stats:
2021: 0-for-1 for 0 yards; 6 carries-20 yards & 1 TD
2022: 8-for-12 for 144 yards, 1 TD, O INT; 29 carries for 107 no TD
2023: 131-219,1,810, 20 TD, 8 INT; 122-750-8TD’s; 1 catch, 12 yards TD
Preston Jernegan Career Stats:
2020: 13 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT
2021: 30 catches for 359, 1 TD; 81 tackles (most by 29 more than senior Duncan Sprengel), 2 sacks
2022: 13 catches-303 & 3 TDs; 132 tackles (61 more than Julian Navarro’s 71), 2 sacks, & 5 INT’s
2023: 40-601-12 TD catches; 62 tackles, 1 sack
Phillip Ocon Career Stats:
2020: 12 tackles,
2021: 13 tackles, 1 sack
2022: 46 tackles, 1 sack
2023: 36 tackles, 1 sack