As Pete Lavorato enters his 13th season as head coach of the Sacred Heart Prep football team, the message he conveys to his squad is simple -- continue to build a legacy at the school.
Lavorato's past few teams already have laid down quite the impressive foundation for that legacy. Over the past three seasons Sacred Heart has compiled a 38-3 record, won three Central Coast Section championships, one NorCal crown, made an appearance in the state finals and, last year, fashioned a historic 13-0 season.
Those accomplishments would be incredible feats for any high school football program, but they are especially impressive for a small school with an enrollment of approximately 600 students.
So what is the secret formula to this recent run of success? How can the Gators' roster undergo can changes every season, but the success remain continuous?
"No mystery, no secret, it's pretty simple stuff," Lavorato explained. "The blueprint is the consistency in the program we've built over the years."
Stability has become a trademark of the Sacred Heart Prep program, both in terms of the Gators' coaching staff and their offensive and defensive playbooks.
Unlike some head coaches who alter their "X's and O's" year-to-year depending on their players' strengths and weaknesses, Lavorato prefers to have his players adjust to his well-developed style of play.
"We're going to run our offense and run our defense no matter who we have," Lavorato said. "Now there are going to be subtle changes every year, but the kids know what to expect. They know what we're going to do on both sides of the ball and special teams."
Part of the reason varsity players are so familiar with Lavorato's schemes is their early introduction to his system. Lavorato makes sure the JV and freshman coaches run the same concepts as the varsity squad, so the process of moving up competition levels is not as daunting of a task.
Lavorato also makes sure the emphasis of the lower-level teams is shifted away from looking at the scoreboard, and is instead focused on simplifying the complexities of the sport and having fun on the field.
"Half the battle is keeping kids wanting to play . . . it's the lifeblood of our program," Lavorato said. "Coaching those young kids, you have to be careful it's not about the wins and losses. You don't want coaches screaming and yelling at young kids. Because, when they do, they might quit. And we only have so many boys, and you want to keep them in the program."
Of course, Lavorato's built-from-within system would not work without a plethora of talented players, and Sacred Heart has enjoyed a considerable amount of top-tier talent over the past few seasons.
In fact, likely the biggest challenge Sacred Heart faces at the beginning of this year is learning how to play without two-way star Ben-Burr Kirven, who is now a freshman at the University of Washington.
It is hard to imagine that one player can replicate Burr-Kirven's production from last season, (108 rushing yards/game with 18 TDs, 14.5 tackles/game), but the team already gained a little experience last year competing without their former top performer.
"We played without him for five games and we won all five games and they weren't easy games," Lavorato said. "That was actually a good thing for us, and I think a lot of the kids kind of went 'hey we're not bad without him.' But we're not going to replace Ben Burr-Kirven. He's a special kid that made all of us better."
Including Burr-Kirven, the Gators must replace nine defensive starters from last year's unit that only allowed 15 points per game.
The Gators do return several key contributors, most notably tight end Andrew Daschbach, wide receiver Nick O'Donnell, quarterback Mason Randall and running back Lapitu Mahoni. All are seniors.
Randall had only two interceptions in 193 pass attempts last season, while completing 124 for 2,077 yards and 14 touchdowns. O'Donnell and Daschbach were Randall's top two receivers as they combined for 1,298 yards. Mahoni is the top returning ballcarrier after gaining 700 yards on 134 carries.
If Lavorato does make one minor tweak to his offensive game plan this season, it likely will be to throw the ball more to take advantage of Randall's considerable experience and talent.
"He's the best high school quarterback I've been associated with over my years of coaching," Lavorato said. "He's the real deal. I mean, he's a great kid, tremendous leader. Kids respect him and the coaching staff respects him."
Although there is plenty of excitement surrounding the Sacred Heart Prep program after its best season in school history, Lavorato said there is no internal pressure for the team to win another CCS championship in order to have a successful season.
"We're not the same team as we were last year, absolutely not," Lavorato said. "But, we have a really good competitive football team. And for the wins and losses whatever happens, happens."
Lavorato's goal is for Sacred Heart Pep to reach the section playoffs. But, in order to get there, the Gators first will have to navigate a tough league schedule with a target on their back.
Luckily for the Gators, Lavorato's blueprint to do just that was put in place a long time ago.
Sacred Heart Prep opens its 2015 season on Friday at Leland High in San Jose at 7 p.m.
In other season-opening nonleague games on Friday:
Palo Alto will host Sequoia on Friday night (7:30 p.m.) in the 76th meeting between the former rivals. The teams first met, at Paly, in 1920 with the Vikings posting a 42-0 victory in what later would be known at the Little Big Game when the contest shifted to Stanford Stadium in 1945 to accommodate the growth in attendance.
Palo Alto holds a 42-28-5 lead in the series and has won 11 of the past 13 contests. Paly went 3-7 last season, including a 2-4 mark in the SCVAL De Anza Division, under first-year coach Jake Halas.
In San Mateo, Gunn will attempt to get off to a winning start against the host Bearcats at 7 p.m. The Titans stumbled to a 1-9 mark last season, including 1-5 in the SCVAL El Camino Division.
On Saturday, Menlo School opens at Carmel and Menlo-Atherton visits Marin Catholic, both at 2 p.m.
The Knights were 4-6 last season, 1-4 in the PAL Bay Division, and will play in the PAL Ocean Division this season. Making his debut at quarterback for Menlo will be 6-foot-6 senior Mackenzie Morehead, who missed last season with a broken wrist.
The Bears, meanwhile, will have a new quarterback and head coach for its season opener. Robby Beardsley, last year's starting QB, transferred to Oceanside High in Southern California. Senior Ben Spindt and junior Stavro Papadakis have been competing for that position. Adhir Ravipati takes over at head coach and will try to turn around last season's 3-8 overall record (1-4 in the PAL Bay Division).