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Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - December 20, 2013

SHP takes state football finale in stride

After upsetting El Cerrito in NorCal final, Gators know they have a shot in title game

by Ari Kaye

Pete Lavorato is much more than an X's and O's kind of football coach. Sometimes he needs to be part teacher or cheerleader.

"Last week was all about building them up," Lavorato said of his Sacred Heart Prep players. "My job was trying to convince them that we're good, too."

Lavorato needed to convince his team that it did have a chance against heavily favored El Cerrito in the CIF Division III Northern California regional championship game. It 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.

With the victory, Sacred Heart Prep (13-1) advances to its first-ever state championship game, where the Gators 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.

Lavorato has faced a different task this week as his team prepared for its biggest game in program history.

"This week, I've told the boys 'pride comes before the fall. You have to be humble.' "

Lavorato explained how the media spotlight suddenly is shining on his players and how it's a new experience for them. The important thing is not letting them caught up in all the attention.

"When you stay humble," Lavorato said, "nothing bad can happen . . . this is a dream come true. I've had the opportunity to keep working with these kids."

Everything is a bonus for the Gators at this point. Corona del Mar is riding a 25-game win streak and is hoping to become the first football team in state history to win 16 games. Everything is pointing toward that happening, unless you truly know what kind of team Sacred Heart Prep has.

"I think we're both very well-matched," Lavorato said. "We have similar schools, but definitely different systems. It should be interesting."

Corona del Mar comes in averaging 34.7 points while allowing 9.3. SHP is averaging 35.4 while giving up 8.7. The Sea Kings are averaging 178.5 passing yards and 216 rushing yards per game while the Gators will run first and pass when they have to.

While Sacred Heart Prep may be considered the underdog, it's a role the Gators used as a motivator for last week's win over El Cerrito.

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

"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 racking 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," 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 the previous week in the CCS Division IV finals. 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."

Despite facing a week of finals and preparation for the state finals, Lavorato made sure that his team took the time to savor its 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 his players.

A resounding "No!" was their answer.

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