Pete Lavorato didn't quite know what to expect when he took over the Sacred Heart Prep football program prior to the 2003 season. He was young, fairly inexperienced as a head coach and only a few years removed from his final season as a player in the Canadian Football League.
"I really didn't know much about the program, coming from Canada," Lavorato said. "It was just kind of take it a year at a time."
While spending time as an assistant in Hollister and then as Gilroy's head coach, a friend and mentor (Ron Leonte) provided some advice before Lavorato moved on to Sacred Heart Prep.
"He said build a program," Lavorato related. "Don't worry about the wins and losses."
So, that was Lavorato's plan.
"I was just trying to build a program to be respected," he said. "As long as we were respected on the field and off being respected in the community that was enough."
Lavorato's toughest job at first was finding players on campus.
"I think we had about 35 kids that first year," Lavorato remembered. "We started off all right."
The Gators went 7-3 that first season under Lavorato, playing teams like St. Bernard, St. Vincent and St. Elizabeth in the North Coast Section. Prior to the 2008 season, Lavorato decided it was time to move to the Central Coast Section.
"That really changed everything," he said. "There was no sense of rivalry in the NCS."
SHP went 11-1-1 its first season in the CCS, reaching the Small School Division title game before losing. Since 2008, the Gators' rise has been meteoric with a 75-14-1 record, three CCS Division IV titles, one NorCal crown and an appearance in last year's CIF Division III state championship game.
The mind boggles at such success over such a short period of time.
And Lavorato is quick to point out: "We don't recruit. I've never been to a Pop Warner game. We don't have athletic scholarships."
So why the success?
A good coaching staff (top assistant Matt Moran has been at SHP since the program started) good players, a smart game plan and three simple goals before each game.
"I tell them three things before every game," Lavorato said. "One, do your job. Two, once you do your job, play hard. And three, have fun."
Remarkably, that has translated into a 12-0 record for the Gators this season and a No. 18 spot on the Cal-Hi Sports state rankings as the top-seeded Gators head into Friday's CCS Open Division championship game against No. 7 Bellarmine (10-2) at San Jose City College. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
"I don't know if we'll beat Bellarmine," Lavorato said, "but they had better be ready to compete."
SHP is coming off a 28-21 win over No. 5 Los Gatos last weekend and a 37-13 triumph over No. 8 Oak Grove in the section opener. Those two teams are now a combined 107-56-1 all-time in CCS playoff games. The Gators are 15-3.
In the win over Los Gatos, SHP was not penalized even once. For the season, SHP junior quarterback Mason Randall has thrown only one (yes, just one) interception in 173 attempts while completing 115 for 1,886 yards and 14 touchdowns.
"That's part of my philosophy," said Lavorato, "to give the kids the best chance to succeed."
Simply, the Gators play smart and don't hurt themselves with game-killing mistakes. That's why they are on the verge of being 13-0 for the first time ever.
Perhaps remarkably, SHP played (and won) its first five games while two-way standout Ben Burr-Kirven was sidelined with an injury. Since his return, he has rushed for 759 yards (9.6 average) and scored 17 touchdowns in just seven games. He also leads the team with 100 tackles (14.3 per game).
"It's not me, it's the whole team," he said. "Our offense has been a machine this year. The touchdowns are a credit to the O-line, they're not me at all."
Burr-Kirven scored on a pair of five-yard runs against Los Gatos, the second one coming with just 45 seconds to play to lift the Gators to victory and into the championship game. Mitch Martella returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown and Randall snuck in from a yard out for another.
"We don't want it to end," Burr-Kirven said. "We want to win the Open Division, that's the goal."
Beyond that, there's a slight possibility of returning to a state championship game.
"Absolutely," Burr-Kirven said. "We'd love to get another shot at that. But, you can't think about that until you win the Open. If we get anything after that, it's not up to us; it's in the hands of the CIF."
Should SHP win on Friday and finish 13-0, that could be the end of this year's journey. De La Salle is ticketed to the Open Division state finals while unbeaten Folsom likely will face unbeaten Grant (Sacramento) in the Division I Regional Bowl game. That leaves SHP as the odd man out, because of a CCS rule that doesn't allow an Open Division team to drop into its natural enrollment slot.
"What can you do?" Lavorato questioned about his team's future past Friday. "For us to go 13-0, should we beat Bellarmine, and not be able to keep playing I just don't get it . . . (but) the rules are the rules."
Grant needs to lose to St. Mary's of Stockton in Friday's Sac-Joaquin Section Division II game in order to face Folsom in the Division I regional final, with the winner of that going to a state championship game.
No matter what happens, Lavorato's goal of 12 years ago has come to fruition. He wanted to build a program that was respected on and off and field. He and his coaches have done just that.