By Ari Kaye
Sacred Heart Prep had not faced much pressure in the early part of their schedule this season, as the Gators defeated their first five opponents of 2013 by a combined score of 211-19.
In fact, coming into Friday night's contest against PAL Bay Division rival Menlo-Atherton, Sacred Heart had not trailed in any contest for a single moment.
However, against a tough M-A squad, Sacred Heart found itself down 12-0 going into the fourth quarter. For the Gators, this would be their first true test of the season.
They passed with flying colors.
Sacred Heart Prep (1-0, 6-0) scored 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, stunning Menlo-Atherton (1-1, 4-2) on its homecoming night, in a thrilling 15-12 comeback victory.
"We never give up hope, that's an attitude from last season that's carried over," Sacred Heart senior running back Ricky Grau said. "Our coaches drill it into our heads that we can always come back and win."
With 1:42 left in the contest and M-A leading 12-7, Sacred Heart faced a 4th-and-6 situation from the M-A 11-yard line. With no timeouts remaining, the Gators needed a first down to continue playing.
Sacred Heart decided to put the ball in the hands of sophomore quarterback Mason Randall and the underclassman came through, completing a six-yard pass to junior receiver Mitch Martella for a first down at the 5-yard line.
"We have confidence in both our quarterbacks, but Mason was the guy we decided to go with today," SHP head coach Pete Lavorato said when explaining why he did not stick with his usual platoon of Randall and junior quarterback Cole March. "There is just something about Mason. I don't know what it is."
Two plays after the fourth-down conversation, junior running back Ben Burr-Kirven ran into the end zone from four yards out, to give Sacred Heart Pep its first lead of the game with one minute to go.
Menlo-Atherton did not succumb to defeat quietly, as senior quarterback Brian Keare led the Bears to the Sacred Heart 22-yard line.
Menlo-Atherton opted to attempt a 39-yard field goal with four seconds left that would have tied the game, but Keare, who also serves as the Bears' kicker and who had made one earlier, was well short on his attempt -- sending the Sacred Heart players into a state of jubilation on the sideline.
Menlo-Atherton dominated the first half of the game, as the Bears' powerful offensive line opened up big holes for senior running back Isiah Nash, who ran for 94 yards and a touchdown in the first half.
"The M-A offensive coordinator did a great job, he had us off kilter," Lavorato said. "We probably didn't practice tackling enough during our bye (last week). I don't think we were ready for the speed of the game."
The M-A defense was also picture perfect in the first half, holding a Sacred Heart team that averages 296 yards rushing per game, to just 18 rushing yards.
In the third quarter, an unfortunate injury for M-A changed the complexion of the game, as Nash was hurt trying to make a catch on a long pass attempt. Although Nash was able to walk off the field, the Bears' training staff took his helmet away, and Nash did not return.
Without Nash, the Bears struggled to move the ball, and the Gators' running attack finally came alive. A methodical 64-yard drive down the field, capped off by Grau's two-yard touchdown run, pulled Sacred Heart within five points with 8:39 to go in the fourth quarter.
After the Sacred Heart touchdown, it appeared as if M-A might put the game away with a long touchdown drive of its own, but M-A senior running back Brian Jaggers fumbled the ball at the Sacred Heart 45-yard line. The Gators' Nic Collazo recovered, and suddenly SHP had new life
"I was praying for a turnover there, and we got fortunate," Lavorato said of the fumble. "But I think sometimes you cause your own good fortune."
After the fumble recovery, the Gators went 55-yards in five minutes to complete their fourth-quarter comeback.
Burr-Kirven finished with 19 tackles, 10 solo, and had a sack. Paul Westcott finished with 11 tackles.
Lavorato was very proud of the resiliency of his team, and felt that some of the stigmas attached to private high school football teams did not apply to his group.
"Our kids are tough sons-of-guns,"Lavorato said "I know this is a prep school, but these guys are tough."