Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - December 27, 2013

So close to title

Turnovers cost Sacred Heart Prep in state football finale

by Keith Peters

By now, the Christmas presents have been opened and the holiday cheer served up. It is time for family and friends and time off from work and school.

It's also time to sit back and relax, and recall the best moments of the year.

The Sacred Heart Prep football team has plenty of those, even though last Saturday's 27-15 loss to Corona del Mar in the Division III finals of the CIF State Football Bowl Championships at the StubHub Center in Carson was not the lasting memory the Gators wanted.

The dream was winning the program's 14th game and first-ever state championship. The reality was fruitcake and a lump of coal.

"Sometimes in life," said SHP head coach Pete Lavorato after the game, "things don't go your way."

Sacred Heart Prep reached its first-ever appearance in a state championship game by being successful running the ball, keeping turnovers to a minimum and holding opponents to an average of just 8.7 points a contest over a 14-game season.

When it came to Game 15, however, the Gators were unable to continue that successful trend as Corona del Mar did more to control its destiny than did SHP.

Averaging 280 yards a game on the ground this season, the Gators managed just 181 — with no individual surpassing 100 yards. SHP also lost three fumbles and suffered one interception that led to one TD and two field goals. And, SHP's vaunted defense was touched for three touchdowns in the first quarter.

"It was frustrating," said Lavorato, who guided the Gators to a 13-2 record during a season that included CCS Division IV and NorCal titles. "We'd get down there (near the end zone) and something would happen. It just seemed like we weren't able to finish things . . . We haven't turned the ball over much this year."

Turnovers, however, proved to be the difference in this one as the Gators battled back from a 21-0 first-quarter deficit and made a game of it with a 37-yard interception return by junior Andrew Robinson and a 47-yard run by junior two-way standout Ben Burr-Kirven to close to within 21-15 at the half.

"That's always difficult," Lavorato said of the huge early deficit. "But we didn't give up, and we kept coming back."

A fumble by SHP sophomore Mason Randall to open the second half, however, led to a 31-yard field goal by the Sea Kings and a 24-15 game.

SHP appeared to gain back some momentum on its next series and was driving for a possible touchdown when Andrew Segre, the team's leading rusher, re-injured a previously dislocated shoulder. After coming out of the game for one play, he re-entered but his shoulder popped out as he received a handoff and fumbled the ball away at Corona del Mar's 17.

"That was really frustrating," said Segre, who finished with 54 yards in 16 carries after rushing for 351 and six TDs in the CCS title game two weeks ago.

SHP had two more chances in the fourth quarter to close the gap when a pitch from Randall to Burr-Kirven was fumbled and recovered by Corona del Mar. That led to a 35-yard field goal and a 27-15 lead.

SHP took the ensuing kickoff and marched down to the Sea Kings' 10, but a big penalty for an illegal shift moved the Gators back five yards. A fumble lost two yards and Randall's 9-yard pass to Andrew Daschbach left the Gators on the 8-yard line, short of the first down.

While Sacred Heart Prep played an error-free game in last week's 42-7 rout of favored El Cerrito in the NorCal finals, the Gators needed a similar contest Saturday.

But, it was the Sea Kings accomplishing perfection as they became the first team in state history to complete a 16-0 season while running their two-year win streak to 26 — second-best in the state. Corona del Mar also had not allowed more than 21 points in any game this season, giving up an average of just 9.3 points a game prior to facing SHP.

"They are a good football team, there is no doubt about it," Lavorato said of Corona del Mar. "They deserved to win this game."

Lavorato, however, was equally effusive of his own team, which was led by Burr-Kirven's 16 tackles (14 solo) and 77 yards rushing on seven carries. The Gators also produced the closest game of the five state finals played during the weekend.

However, the Gators — were averaging 405 offensive yards per game — were held to 288 total. Defensively, SHP allowed 339. The difference, however, was Corona del Mar's fast start. After that, the Gators allowed just six points over the final 36 minutes.

Take away the four turnovers and this was a game that Sacred Heart Prep could have won. It was also a game that just about no one expected the Gators to be playing at the start of the season.

"No one would have given us much chance, I think, at the beginning of the year — considering we lost 21 seniors," said Lavorato, who is 96-32-1 in 11 years at SHP. "Hey, at our school, there are just under 300 boys, so when you lose 21 that's a lot."

Nine seniors dotted the roster this season — Noah Kawasaki, Nic Collazo, Chris Lee, Ricky Grau, Alex Castro, Paul Westcott, Patrick Finnigan, Will Reilly and Segre. They led by example and helped produce a 25-3 record over two years that took the Gators to heights never achieved before in program history.

SHP was ranked No. 11 in the final Cal-Hi Sports Bay Area Top 25, trailing only De La Salle, Serra, Mitty, Cal High, Pittsburg, Deer Valley, James Logan, San Ramon Vally, Valley Christian and Bellarmine. That, of course, is pretty good company.

This past weekend in Carson, however, only De La Salle and Sacred Heart Prep played for state championships.

"Your effort was unbelievable," Lavorato told his players after the game. "They (Corona del Mar) deserved to win, but we're tremendously proud of what you have done this year and what you did today. Of course it hurts; it hurts big time. Once the pain goes away, you'll reflect back on what a tremendous season you just had. This is a great life experience."

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