Football St. Anthony

Feature: St. Anthony Football Overcame 0-3 Start to Reach CIF Title Game

Just 83 days ago, St. Anthony’s football team was at a crossroads.

After a  47-8 loss to Millikan, the Saints dropped to 0-3, having been outscored 126-28 to start the year.

“It was the beginning of a long season,” Saints senior lineman Eric Suluai said. “I thought it was going to be bad.”

It turns out it wasn’t as the Saints (9-4) are one win away from a CIF Southern Section title as they face Northview (7-6) in the Div. 10 championship on Friday at Covina District Field at 7 p.m.

“We built chemistry,” Suluai said.

Where it started was the morning after the loss to the Rams.

Saints senior running back/linebacker Anakin Aupiu said the team showed up for its usual Saturday morning film session/workout “hungry.”

“We were quiet and focused during film,” Aupiu said. “Then during the lifting session, we worked harder and wanted more.”

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For Raul Lara, who won five CIF-SS championships at Poly and has decades of high school coaching experience, he knew his first year at St. Anthony would be a slow process.

“We had to move on from the loss and get better,” Lara said. “In the Millikan game, we were trying to run the ball but they were bigger and we needed to be technically sound.”

It was already a tough start to the season for Lara, who didn’t start his job with the Saints until mid-July. He then had to find a replacement his team’s season-opener against Lakewood, and ended up scheduling San Pedro, who is playing in the LA City Open Division title game this weekend. The Saints lost that game 42-0, but haven’t been shutout since.

“It was a process and it takes time for things to happen,” Lara said.

Aupiu said Lara brought out the “competitors” in the team and had a “culture of winning” during his career.

What also helped the Saints after the 0-3 start was the next week’s opponent, Wilson, a local rival.

Head coach Raul Lara joins his team in a postgame prayer. The Saints are playing for a CIF title on Friday night. Photo by Joseph Kling.

“We started to come together as a team,” Saints senior defensive back Tyler Henry said. “We developed more of the playbook.”

The Saints beat Wilson, 23-13, to win their first “Battle for 7th Street” trophy since 2017.

“Victories build confidence and our skill guys started to build confidence that they can make plays,” Lara said.

Senior quarterback Conor Hochberg had split time with senior quarterback Jacob Martinez, but the Wilson game was when he took over the reins as the signal-caller.

“Conor started to get going because in our system, I like to be 50/50 run and pass,” Lara said.

After the Wilson game, the Saints offense has averaged over 43 points per contest and has scored at least 35 points in every game behind Hochberg, senior running back Sone Aupiu, senior athlete Kweku Claybrook, and others.

They have had to come a long way, but the Saints have kept marching on, and are now one win away from their first CIF title since 2016.

Julian A. Lopez
Julian A. Lopez has been covering sports for five years. A Long Beach native, he graduated from Arizona State in 2016 with a BA in Journalism and spent the last three years as the sports reporter for the Modesto Bee.