Sacred Heart Prep football coach Pete Lavorato was in need of some holiday cheer earlier this week and headed over to a small Christmas party on campus to perhaps find it.
Every year is always a letdown," said Lavorato. "You work and train so hard and play all your games and then it stops."
Unlike any other year in program history, however, the Gators' season came to an end last Friday in a victory at the highest level -- a 14-0 triumph over Bellarmine in the Central Coast Section Open Division championship game at San Jose City College.
Top-seeded Sacred Heart Prep finished 13-0 and remained alive to play at least one more game. Two days later, however, the Gators' season was officially over when they were not selected to play nationally ranked Folsom in a NorCal Division I Regional Bowl Game.
And thus, Lavorato's letdown.
"There was no closure," Lavorato said. "We were this close to playing one of the best teams in the country."
But, all is not lost.
"We're going to have a party in January to celebrate the season," Lavorato said. "Then I'll feel better."
Sacred Heart Prep was left out of the NorCal playoffs for the second time in three years, based on a vote of CIF commissioners who picked Grant of Sacramento (14-0) to face Folsom (14-0) in the in the Division I regional final on Friday at Sacramento State.
Two years ago, the Gators finished 12-1. Being left out was easier to reconcile that season. This time, after finishing 13-0, it wasn't.
"I have no sour grapes and I don't feel like I've been wronged," Lavorato said. "But, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. We would have liked to have kept playing."
Those chances were slim, even after winning the CCS Open Division, because the CIF voted last August to eliminate the Open Division regional bowl after perennial power De La Salle won two straight years with blowouts. The top NorCal Open Division team now advances directly to the state finals.
Had that bowl not been eliminated, Folsom would have played De La Salle this weekend and, most likely, Sacred Heart Prep would have met Grant in the NorCal Division I title game -- the winner going to the state championship contest.
The consensus of most of the SHP players, nine of whom already have moved on to winter sports, was that they were deserving of at least one more game.
"It's definitely disappointing," said senior Ben Burr-Kirven, who rushed for 95 yards and scored both touchdowns against Bellarmine. "But, it's one of those things; you have to let it go."
Added senior defensive back Mitch Martella, who had a fourth-quarter interception to help end Bellarmine's hopes: "When we didn't get picked, I was pretty disappointed. It definitely stung a little. I was definitely happy to have the opportunity to play in the Open Division, but after going 13-0, it's hard to have someone tell you you can't play."
Many of the players hung out on campus on Sunday with the coaches, awaiting word on the possible regional bowl berth.
"We were looking forward to getting our name chosen," said senior defensive back John Van Sweden, who also had a fourth-quarter interception against the Bells.
That, of course, didn't happen as unbeaten Grant of Sacramento was selected and the Gators were left with only the pride of having an undefeated season.
"Our success has never happened before," Van Sweden said.
Added Burr-Kirven: "It's definitely nice to go out with a win. (But) I'd rather gone on. It's kind of tough to be told your season is over."
But what a season it was.
SHP beat three teams in the CCS playoffs that rank No. 2 (Los Gatos, 82 games), No. 3 (Oak Grove, 76 games) and No. 4 (Bellarmine, 74 games) as the most accomplished teams in section playoff history. Only St. Francis, with 101 games, has played in more.
This season also saw the Gators become the most successful CCS football team over the past three years with a 38-3 record. Milpitas is second at 32-7 while Bellarmine (29-9), Los Gatos (28-11), St. Francis (26-13) and Oak Grove (22-12) trail.
The CCS Open Division title was also SHP's third straight section crown, the most of any section team during that time.
Perhaps most important, this season showed doubters that a school with only 603 students could compete the elite schools like Bellarmine (3,278 students), Oak Grove (1,920) and Los Gatos (1,820).
"To get a chance to prove ourselves, as a small school, sets a precedent for Sacred Heart Prep teams in years to come," said senior linebacker Cole March. "Maybe they'll get an opportunity to move on."
Added Van Sweden: "People didn't think we could play at the highest level with the teams from the WCAL."
Sacred Heart Prep, however, did just that while becoming the smallest school in CCS history to win at on the section's biggest stage.
"With these guys, we walk on the field and compete with anybody," said Lavorato. "We can compete; we've proven that."
Sacred Heart Prep set the table for this season by reaching last year's CIF Division III state finals, losing there to Corona del Mar.
"Winning the Open (Division) is more enjoyable than losing state," said Burr-Kirven.
Added Lavorato: "I feel like this was a greater accomplishment than last year . . . If anyone told me 6-7 years ago that we'd be playing Bellarmine in the Open Division finals, I wouldn't have believed it."
That mindset, however, changed quickly.
"Coming into this season, I don't think anyone came in thinking we weren't going to win every game, go back to state and finish 15-0," said Burr-Kirven. "After we beat Los Gatos it was like, 'we got it.' There was never a doubt in my mind that we wouldn't beat Bellarmine.
"I would have liked to win state but, everything we could do we did to the best of our abilities."
Added March: "This was like the perfect ending to the perfect story."
The Gators, however, will never know what another playoff chapter would have brought.
"I don't think we'd have a problem hanging with Folsom," Burr-Kirven said. "I would have love to have seen what our coaches would have come up with. But, you can't let that eat you up."
"It's bittersweet, I suppose," said Lavorato. "It was a great year. How could you be upset after going 13-0? We won the Open. I think we are the best team in the CCS. I can't say enough good things about our coaching staff and our kids and how wonderful they were and are.
"This was a special year. This might not happen again."
(Note: Folsom (15-0) advanced to the CIF Division I State Championship Bowl Game with a 52-21 pasting of Grant (14-1) on Friday night at Sacramento State)