Sports


SHP earns Goliath role and a trip to the state championships

Sacred Heart Prep versus El Cerrito in the CIF Division III Northern California regional championship game was a matchup billed as David going up against Goliath in football.

Before the contest, the scuttlebutt heard around the stadium was that the Gauchos would be too skilled, too athletic, and too physically intimidating for the Gators to handle.

In some ways the pregame hype was correct, as the game turned out to be a blowout. It just happened that the roles of David and Goliath were reversed.

Sacred Heart physically imposed its will on El Cerrito, dominating both offensively and defensively, on its way to a stunning 42-7 rout of the Gauchos on Saturday night at De Anza High in Richmond.

"A lot of people all week doubted us," junior defensive back Will Johnston said. "Going into the game there was absolutely no doubt in our minds that we would be able to win."

With the victory, Sacred Heart Prep advances to its first-ever state championship game, where they will face Corona del Mar (15-0) on Saturday (noon) at the StubHub Center on the campus of Cal-State Dominguez Hills. Corona de Mar eliminated Nordhoff, 24-8, in the SoCal title game.

"This is ridiculous," SHP senior running back Andrew Segre said. "No one ever thought Sacred Heart Prep would win the NorCal Division III regionals like this. This is amazing."

Junior Ben Burr-Kirven starred on both sides of the ball for Sacred Heart, rushing for 160 yards and four touchdowns from his running back position, while also raking up 17 tackles (11 solo) and forcing a fumble from his linebacker spot.

"He's the best high school football player I've coached or seen," Sacred Heart head coach Pete Lavorato said of Burr-Kirven. "He's a great player and a great kid, too."

Segre received a lighter load then his 28-carry effort (for 351 yards and six TDs) against Pacific Grove last Saturday, but the senior was still effective against El Cerrito, rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.

El Cerrito came in as the overwhelming favorites for a reason. On the season, the Gauchos had won by an average score of 43-16, and were led by future Division I football talent, including UCLA-bound Adarius Pickett and Arizona State bound Derik Calhoun and Jalen Harvey.

However, the Gauchos could not match the physicality that the Gators played with on Saturday.

"I don't think they were prepared for us. I don't think they were expecting us to come out and hit like we did," Burr-Kirven said. "They thought we were going to be scared of them, but we came in with the mentality that there isn't anyone better than us, so we're going to go out and win this game."

On defense, the Sacred Heart Prep players did a good job of staying disciplined against the high-octane El Cerrito running attack. The Gauchos had only 13 yards of offense as SHP built a 14-0 lead.

"The D-line played great. We stayed in our rush lanes," Lavorato said. "We didn't panic when they made a few plays. We played great pursuit angles. I don't know how much total offense they had, but it didn't seem like much."

Offensively, Sacred Heart imposed its will on the ground from the very start, as the Gators scored on three of their four total possessions in the first half.

On their first drive, Sacred Heart Prep drove 61-yards down the field on seven rushing plays. The drive was capped off by a nine-yard touchdown run from Burr-Kirven.

The Gauchos attempted to respond on their next possession, but quarterback Keilan Benjamin was stripped by Johnston, who also recorded a sack with five tackles on the night, and Gators' junior defensive back Riley Tinsley recovered the ball at the Sacred Heart Prep 46-yard line.

Seven plays later, Segre bulldozed his way for a one-yard touchdown run to make the score 14-0 just nine minutes into the game.

"Our offensive line was amazing again," Segre said. "It's all about heart for them, and they brought it every play."

Just before halftime El Cerrito suffered a major blow, as Benjamin suffered an injury running outside the pocket, and was forced to leave the game. He was replaced by Pickett in the Wildcat formation and then by Harvey. Benjamin eventually returned when Harvey tweaked his ankle, but Benjamin was forced to leave once more later in the game.

The Gators added one more score before the half, as Burr-Kirven rumbled 45 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown to give Sacred Heart Prep a 21-0 advantage.

"We didn't talk in the locker room (at halftime) how good we were doing," Burr-Kirven said. "We said (El Cerrito) is not going to stop. So we knew we had to come out, keep our foot on the gas and keep pounding them."

After the break, the Gators continued to run the ball down the Gauchos' throat, with Burr-Kirven adding two more touchdown runs in the third quarter from one and seven yards away.

The cherry on top for Sacred Heart came in the fourth quarter, as junior wide receiver Mitch Martella hauled in a 47-yard touchdown catch on a ball tipped by Pickett at the 15-yard line. The touchdown pass, was the third and final throwing attempt on the night for sophomore quarterback Mason Randall.

For Sacred Heart, a school that has only played football for the past 15 years, competing in a state championship game is an enormous accomplishment.

"It's like a dream come true. It's a testament to all our coaches and all our kids," Lavorato said. "What a week of practice we had; it was fantastic. Those kids were so focused."

Sacred Heart will need another phenomenal practice week to get ready for a Corona del Mar team that is undefeated on the season, and is currently on a 25-game winning streak overall. CDM is hoping to become the first team in state history to win 16 games in a season.

However, the Gators' minds will probably not be focused solely on football during the upcoming week.

"We got finals, so that's going to be interesting to work with," Johnston said. "But we're going to work as hard as we can so that we're prepared like we were today."

Despite the obstacles lying ahead, Lavorato made sure that his team took the time to savor their dominating performance against El Cerrito.

"You shocked the world tonight!" Lavorato proclaimed to his team after the game. "This is really awesome right now, enjoy it."

However, Lavorato had one more question for his team, to make sure they were not satisfied by simply making it to the state championship game.

"Are we done?" Lavorato asked.

A resounding "no!" was their answer.

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