The St. Joseph football team has gotten used to being counted out.
Here are some of the obstacles the Knights have encountered this year: A three-game losing streak early in the year. They were longshots to win the Mountain League title. They were underdogs in last week's quarterfinal game at Visalia Redwood.
So far, they've overcome every obstacle. They turned a three-game skid into a seven-game win streak. They won the league title. They won their first-round playoff game and advanced to the quarterfinals, where they played the No. 3 seed on the road.
The Knights (9-3) passed that test too.
The St. Joseph High School football team held practice Wednesday in preparation for Friday's semifinal game against Fresno San Joaquin Memorial.
Now they face their greatest challenge of the season. The Knights play at Fresno's San Joaquin Memorial Friday night in the semifinals of the CIF Central Section Division 2 playoffs.
The Panthers, last year's Division 3 champion and State finalist, are the No. 2 seed and 10-1 on the year. According to MaxPreps, Memorial is ranked 61st in the state. St. Joseph is ranked No. 144 in the same poll.
"We're super excited to come out and show what our small town can do," St. Joseph quarterback Hunter Barnhart said. "We're going to a big school over there and we're going to show them what we've got. The rest of the team is excited for it, we're pumped up."
Barnhart has started the past eight games for the Knights and is 7-1 in that span as they are riding a seven-game win streak.
Memorial, coached by Anthony Goston, has dominated its opposition in 2019, outscoring opponents 465-165. The offense is led by a talented trio in the passing game: quarterback Finn Collins and star receivers Jalen McMillan and Mac Dalena.
McMillan is a consensus four-star recruit committed to Washington. He leads the Panthers with 1,325 receiving yards on 72 catches, but he's second on the team with 11 touchdown catches.
St. Joseph junior Tyler Williams, who wears No. 4 just like McMillan, will likely be tasked with covering Memorial's top receiver. Williams and McMillan have similar builds. Both are wiry athletes listed at 6-foot-2.
Dalena leads the Panthers in touchdown receptions with 16. He's caught 55 passes for 982 yards. The senior is committed to Fresno State. Last week in Memorial's 42-3 win over Stockdale in the quarterfinals, Dalena had eight catches for 203 yards and two scores.
Patrick Heard, Devin Guggia, Vincent Geronimo, Diego Castillo and even Mark Crisp will likely see lots of time in the defensive secondary for the Knights.
Collins, Memorial's quarterback, has completed 63 percent of his throws for 2,818 yards, 32 touchdowns and four interceptions on the year.
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"Teams are going to have (special) individuals, but it's about who's going to play together," St. Joseph coach Pepe Villasenor said when asked about Memorial. "We have watched countless hours of film, not only as a staff, but as a team. God willing, we will be ready for Friday night."
St. Joseph's offense, meanwhile, has been firing on all cylinders during this win streak. The Knights have been able to assert their will with a ball-control offense that marches down the field. Last week against Visalia Redwood, a 28-21 quarterfinal win, Guggia had 28 carries for 152 yards and three scores on the ground. Crisp, who started the year at quarterback for the Knights before suffering a broken collarbone, threw a touchdown pass to Barnhart.
St. Joseph seems to play its best when Barnhart takes care of the ball and limits turnovers, something he's excelled at during the Knights' win streak.
"His reading ability has certainly advanced," Villasenor said of Barnhart. "Our quarterbacks here at St. Joe have to be able to audible and also identify what the defense is in. Our calls will change depending on blitzes and things of that nature."
Guggia had a breakout game after focusing mostly on defense toward the end of the regular season. Guggia, who also starts at free safety, looked fresh against Redwood. Junior Brett Burress took the bulk of the carries during the final month of the regular season as Guggia dealt with a leg injury.
"Due to injuries other guys had to step up and that's one of our mottoes here, 'Next guy up and everyone is held accountable," Villasenor said. "But, obviously, having a great senior leader that's part of the major heartbeat of our program and is able to carry the ball and is able to play sound defense is important for us."
St. Joseph's defensive line has also played well. Jacob Medrano, Noe Carlos and Daniel Galassi have been able to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks without the Knights having to send extra blitzers.
The linebacking corps may be the Knights' strongest unit on defense. It's composed of seniors Michael Madrigal and Josiah Acosta, juniors Jayce Gamble and Sebastian Ramirez.
The winner of Friday's game will likely play at top seed Hanford, which hosts fifth-seeded Tulare Western in the other semifinal. Hanford is 12-0 on the season.