When Sacred Heart Prep opened its football season by losing two of its first three games, a lot was lost at that point.
First and foremost, the Gators would not repeat their remarkable 13-0 season of 2014 when they captured the Open Division title of the Central Coast Section playoffs. Also gone was SHP's 14-game winning streak. Gone too, along with nine defensive starters to graduation, was the core of a superlative defense that allowed fewer than 15 points a game.
Head coach Pete Lavorato and his staff went back to work, tweaked the roster with some personnel changes and scored 76 points in the very next game. The Gators went 8-1 in their final nine games, earned a three-way tie for the PAL Bay Division title and captured a pair of CCS Open Division III playoff contests.
That brings us to Saturday night's showdown with Riordan, a team that handed SHP a shocking 48-21 defeat on Sept. 11. Both teams are 9-3 and set for their rematch, at Westmont High in Campbell at 7 p.m. The winner advances to a state regional playoff game while the loser sends its athletes off to winter sports.
"We want to win a CCS championship," said Lavorato, who is seeking a fourth straight section crown after compiling a 38-3 record during the past three seasons. "That's a good thing. If you do win, you get the bonus of going to NorCals."
Winning a CCS title and qualifying for a possible state bowl game was probably the furthest thing on Lavorato's mind after his team got off to a 1-2 start.
"Our preseason schedule was much tougher than last year's," he said.
SHP opened 2015 with a 47-7 romp over Leland, but fell to Riordan and then Palma, 31-28. Riordan beat Palma (17-14) to reach the finals.
"Those three teams were just better competition," Lavorato said.
During those three games, the SHP coaching staff was attempting to find replacements for the graduated nine defensive starters from '14.
"It was a real steep learning curve," Lavorato explained. "We threw them into the fire right away."
It was obvious after the loss to Riordan that SHP needed to improve drastically on defense or face a long season. The Crusaders finished with 507 total yards, 351 rushing.
Lavorato experimented with players in different positions and made the necessary changes while sticking to his primary zone defense.
"Then, it was just a matter of learning and getting better," he said. "Playing man is easy, you just cover your man. In zone, all five guys (in the backfield) have to work together. It takes time to learn that stuff. I thought we did a pretty good job of putting the pieces together . . . Right now, we're playing pretty good defense."
Since losing to Menlo-Atherton (17-14), the Gators have won five straight and held opponents to an average of 20 points a game.
Sixth-seeded Sacred Heart Prep opened the postseason with a 42-21 romp over No. 3 Live Oak (9-2) before stuffing No. 2 Monte Vista Christian (10-2) last weekend, 33-10.
"We definitely played really well against them," Lavorato said. "We're back to where we were (last year). I don't know if that's good enough to beat Riordan."
SHP gained just 331 total yards in the first game with the Crusaders, but the Gators have improved in all facets of the game. In fact, compared to last season's team, SHP is averaging 30 more passing yards, one more rushing yards and has eight more touchdowns.
The offensive line, which returned only three interior players (senior Justin Harmon, junior Kyle Stadler and senior Mark Bechtel) plus tight end Andrew Daschbach, added junior Josh Suzuki and senior Nick Ralston.
"Last year's offensive line was good," said Lavorato. "This year's, I think, is better. I would say it's the best, as a team, judged by how well they run block."
The OL has opened holes for senior Lapitu Mahoni, who leads the way with 202 carries for 1,437 yards (119.8 per game) and 24 touchdowns with seven games of 100 yards or more.
"Last year he was good," Lavorato said. "This year he's even better."
Mahoni had 189 yards on 19 carries and scored the first three touchdowns in the victory at Monte Vista Christian last week.
SHP junior Isoa Moimoi, Mahoni's cousin, is next with 743 rushing yards on 132 carries with 13 touchdowns. Last year's team average 242.8 yards per game, but this season it's up to 243.7.
Also benefiting from solid blocking is senior quarterback Mason Randall, who will be making his 40th start on Saturday and has thrown 46 TD passes in his career. He already has surpassed last year's totals with 2,272 passing yards, completion percentage of .679, an average of 189.3 yards per game, 21 touchdowns and just three interceptions in 187 attempts.
"Obviously," Lavorato said, "Mason is a special high school quarterback."
Daschbach has 46 catches for 916 yards and fellow senior Nick O'Donnell has caught 44 passes for 885 yards.
While SHP has the offense to compete with Riordan, the deciding factor could be defense.
"There's reason to hope that our defense will play better," Lavorato said. "I just think it's coming down to who can hang in there . . . I can't say if we play mistake-free we'll beat them."