Holy smoke! A 12-1 record, section title for SHP
When Pete Lavorato looked out at his Sacred Heart Prep players during an early football practice, he liked what he saw.
"I knew we were going to be OK," he said. "But, to go 12-1? Holy Smoke!"
Holy smoke, indeed.
In his 10th season at the Atherton school, Lavorato came up with a team for the ages.
"It's the best team we've had in 10 years," Lavorato said. "The best team, the best defense."
Lavorato has been blessed with high-scoring teams, decent defensive squads and very talented players during his tenure. He previously had won a Central Coast Section Division IV title, in 2010, and pretty much accomplished just about everything.
His 2012 team, however, just pushed everything else over the edge with the best record in school history (12-1), it's second CCS Division IV title and a defense that allowed just 9.9 points a game — best in the section.
Gators capped their near-perfect season with a 13-7 victory over rival Menlo School last Saturday night in a torrential rain storm at Terra Nova High in Pacifica. There was no need for Lavorato to have a tub of Gatorade dumped on him as he and everyone else was already drenched.
Second-seeded Sacred Heart Prep defeated fourth-seeded Menlo (10-3) for the second time this season. The Knights had been averaging 48.3 points a game before the finale to lead the CCS, had scored 50 or more points on six occasions and tallied 56 points four times.
The championship game matched the best offense against the best defense.
"When you have a defense, you're always in the game," said Lavorato. "We've kind of been known as a team that scores a lot of points, but not this season."
This season was all about not letting the opponents score. In fact, the Gators had three shutouts in their first five games, during which they outscored the opposition by a combined 180-9.
So, what made this SHP different than in years past?
"The chemistry of this team," said Lavorato. "We started with 33 guys, but we always had five guys hurt, it seemed. Every game we dressed 26-28. But, every kid could play. We had guys who stepped up."
For example, when junior linebacker Sean Mayle suffered a concussion in the Valparaiso Bowl in the regular-season finale, sophomore J.R. Hardy came in and played the final three CCS playoff games. When senior linebacker Trevor Ruegg went down with an injury, junior Ricky Grau stepped in. The Gators also had to fill a big hole when junior tight end/linebacker Mark Hardy missed the entire season following an operation.
"We lost kids, but we had other kids right behind them who contributed," explained Lavorato. "This is a great group of kids. It's been fun working with this group. . . . I don't know if anybody really thought we were going to be as good as we are. I didn't even think that."
As the season progressed, however, so did Lavorato's impression of his team as it allowed no more than 28 points in a single game and gave up 20 or more only twice. Five times SHP held opponents to single-digit scoring.
The Gators wrapped up things up with their victory over rival Menlo (10-3), which was making its second title-game appearance since 2009 after winning 10 games for the first time since joining the CCS.
Sacred Heart Prep got two interceptions from senior Jack Del Santo, the second coming 1:14 left in the game, to seal the victory.
Menlo came into the game having scored 580 points this season. Junior quarterback Jack Heneghan had thrown 33 touchdown passes with only three interceptions, operating out of Menlo's wide-open run-and-shoot offense. Sacred Heart Prep, meanwhile, had allowed just 122 points for an average of 10.1 per game.
Heneghan did get his 34th touchdown pass of the season, an eight-yarder to Matt Bradley on a third-and-3 situation in the second quarter. That held up for a 7-0 halftime lead on a night where the rainy weather played a big factor in the game's outcome.
Heneghan, however, wound up just 6-of-20 passing for 68 yards with three interceptions. Five of the six interceptions he threw this season came in the two losses to the Gators.
"A lot of credit goes to the D-line," Del Santo said. "They were getting great pressure on the QB. It's tough on a QB when you have a lot of pressure in your face. Our coaches set up a great game plan and our D-line knew what they had to do in the game."
Sacred Heart Prep bounced back from an unproductive first half to tie the game at 7 following a 65-yard drive. The Gators ran the ball 13 times, with sophomore Ben Burr-Kirven finishing it off with a one-yard run with 5:33 left in third quarter.
The game remained that way until Sacred Heart Prep put together another impressive drive, marching 73 yards on 13 plays, all runs, with senior quarterback Kevin Donahoe finishing it off with an 11-yard touchdown run. The extra point was missed, giving Menlo hope.
The Knights got one last chance late in the fourth quarter when Bradley broke through the line and threw Burr Kirven for a three-yard loss on a fourth-and 3 from the Menlo 7. Menlo took over with 2:13 left to play.
Heneghan connected on back-to-back passes, threw an incomplete, but the Knights picked up five yards when the Gators were caught offsides. After an incomplete pass that was nearly picked off by SHP's Patrick Tinsley, Heneghan ran eight yards for a first down at the Gators' 49.
With time running out, Heneghan overthrew his receiver and Del Santo was there to pick it off. He made a nice, long return deep into Menlo territory before Donahoe took a few knees to run out the clock.
Sacred Heart Prep weathered the stormy weather with 271 rushing yards. Andrew Segre led the Gators with 141 yards rushing on 22 carries. Burr-Kirven added 71 yards on 14 hauls, 11 coming in the second half.
Paul Westcott led the defense with 10 tackles while Patrick Finnigan and Burr-Kirven had eight tackles each. Nick Salzman had an interception to help complete the solid defensive effort by the Gators. Offensively, SHP controlled the second half, running 36 plays (all runs) to Menlo's 20.
"I was just thankful we didn't turn the ball over in the second half," Lavorato said. "I was really proud of the guys. Our whole offensive line played so great in the second half."
Saturday's title game was the fourth time the neighborhood rivals have faced each other in the CCS playoffs. In all four, the winner turned out to be the team that captured the annual Valparaiso Bowl during the regular season. SHP rallied to beat Menlo in the Valpo Bowl this season, 31-28, and beat the Knights on two other postseason occasions after winning the "bowl" game.