Sports

Playoff time brings out the best in Sacred Heart Prep

 

It's playoff time now, and that has come to mean the Sacred Heart Prep football team is performing at a high level.

Forget about that 2-8 regular season. Sacred Heart Prep is two wins away from its fifth consecutive Central Coast Section championship.

A win over Carmel Saturday in the CCS Division V quarterfinals made the Gators 15-0 in post-season play the last five years against Northern California competition. Their only two losses were in the 2013 and 2015 state championship games against teams from Southern California.

The Gators got into this year's CCS playoffs by virtue of having finished in fourth place in the Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division. The PAL gets six automatic berths with four going to its top division, the Bay.

As an entry from an "A" league the Gators were initially slated to be part of the CCS Open Division III bracket.

They were the Open Division III champs last year, beating Archbishop Riordan on a thrilling trick play in the final minute 35-28.

This year at the seeding meeting, when Aptos opted to move up out of its enrollment division, SHP was dropped to Division V.

The No. 8 seed Gators proceeded to make the trip to Carmel and beat the previously undefeated No. 1 seed, 46-26, in a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated. SHP had a 46-14 lead in the third quarter.

"I was a little bit surprised we beat them as handily as we did,'' SHP coach Pete Lavorato said. "But I was not as surprised as some people who didn't know what was going on.''

Sacred Heart Prep will play at No. 4 seed Half Moon Bay (9-2) on Friday at 7 p.m. in the semifinals. HMB is the defending Division V champion.

In other CCS semifinal games involving local teams, No. 1 seed Menlo-Atherton (9-2) hosts No. 4 Bellarmine on Friday at 3:30 p.m. in Open Division I play, and No. 3 Menlo School (10-1) plays at No. 2 Seaside in Division V on Friday at 7 p.m.

Half Moon Bay tied for the PAL Ocean title with Menlo School and defeated Scotts Valley, 49-30, in the CCS quarterfinals.

"My take on Half Moon Bay, they're always very good, well-coached, tough kids,'' Lavorato said. "They have a lot of pride that they all come from the same area. They're very tough and I respect them very much. We know we're going to have to come with our best effort to have a chance.''

The Gators got off to a 0-5 start this season and went 2-3 in PAL Bay play. But several factors have contributed to the team getting better as the season progressed.

Junior Brad Yaffe took over at quarterback in the second half of the 35-13 loss to Menlo-Atherton on Oct. 14, and has been efficient, completing 57 percent of his passes.

"Brad is making good decisions,'' Lavorato said. "We're a run-first team. When we do throw, the quarterback has to make good decisions. If it's not there then run with it or throw it away.''

Yaffe taking over at QB has enabled Lavorato to utilize Thomas Wine in different ways. Wine, the starter at QB early in the season, was a standout on defense a year ago. Now he's freed up to play full time on defense again and is also seeing time at running back and flyback.

"Making that change it's like we've been given another starter on defense,'' Lavorato said. "And Thomas was just wonderful about Brad taking over at quarterback. He was just 100 percent positive about it.''

Key players getting healthy has also helped. David Peterson has returned from an early-season injury, joining leading tackler Brendan Semien to form a strong inside linebacker tandem. Running back Isoa Moimoi, who missed the first four games with a hamstring injury, has come back and rushed for 763 yards over the last seven games.

But it's not all good news on the injury front. C/DT Kyle Stalder, who Lavorato says was the team's best player, suffered an injury against Hillsdale. He tried to come back against Menlo School and re-aggravated the injury, ending his season.

Another key to the team's turnaround has been its attitude throughout the season.

"The great thing about our kids is they haven't changed their attitude at all,'' Lavorato said. "If you walked on our practice field the week before the Carmel game you wouldn't have known if that was a 2-8 team or an 8-2 team. The game of football at the high school is more than about just wins and losses. It's about handling both in a graceful manner.''

Menlo-Atherton opened its season with a 34-20 loss to Bellarmine. Now the Bears are looking to extend their season with a win against the Bells and earning a berth in the CCS Open Division I championship game.

Needless to say, motivation won't be in short supply.

"Our kids are absolutely dialed in,'' Menlo-Atherton coach Adhir Ravipati said. "Right now they are playing their best football. This is the one they wanted. They are really focused.''

The Bears dropped to 0-2 after losing to Marin Catholic the second week of the season, but haven't lost since.

The team's offense has been in high gear throughout the winning streak, scoring 35 points or more in eight of the nine games behind the running of Jordan Mims (1,615 yards rushing, 10.0 yards per carry, 21 touchdowns) and the running and passing of quarterback Aajon Johnson (885 yards rushing, 13 TDs, 1,671 yards passing, 17 TDs).

"I'm excited about the growth the team has made,'' Ravipati said.

But putting up those kinds of numbers against Bellarmine (7-4) will not be an easy proposition. The Bells are battle-tested from West Catholic Athletic League play. And then there's all that tradition. Bellarmine has won eight CCS football championships.

"They have the kind of program we're trying to build toward,'' Ravipati said. "For Bellarmine, not winning a CCS championship is a disappointment.''

In that first meeting in the season opener the Bells jumped on M-A right from the start, breaking a long touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage and building a 27-7 lead at halftime.

"The first thing we've got to do is get off to a fast start,'' Ravipati said. "Our offense will need to control the line of scrimmage, much more than the first time we played them. On defense we've got to play disciplined assignment football. We've got to be able to stop the run.''

The game is being played at 3:30 p.m. on Friday due to an agreement with neighbors that limits the number of home night games M-A can play in a season.

No. 3 seed Menlo School is hoping a repeat of 2012 might be in order.

That year, the Knights knocked off No. 1 seed and heavily favored Seaside, 41-27, in the CCS Division IV semifinals, advancing to the championship game where it lost to Sacred Heart Prep, 13-7, in a rainstorm at Terra Nova.

This time around Seaside (10-1) got the higher seed again at No. 2, so Menlo will make the long trip down to the Monterey Peninsula for the Friday night game.

"They are really athletic and talented,'' Menlo coach Mark Newton said. "They have good speed and size on the line. They are very dangerous offensively. It should be a fun game.''

The Spartans had to come from behind to beat No. 7 Stevenson 30-25 in the quarterfinals. Menlo had an easy time of it in a 39-7 win over The King's Academy.

Running back Keishawn Robinson is Seaside's top offensive performer. Menlo counters with Charlie Ferguson, who has rushed for 1,511 yards and scored 24 touchdowns.

QB Hayden Pegley has progressed nicely as the season has gone on, completing 60.1 percent of his passes for 1,870 yards and 22 touchdowns while providing a passing-game complement to the running of Ferguson.

"He's getting his reps,'' Newton said of Pegley. "He hadn't played much before this season, just needed some game reps.''

Menlo responded well after its first loss of the season to Half Moon Bay on Sept. 30, reeling off six consecutive wins.

"Our team attitude has been fantastic, tough and resilient,'' Newton said.

Keys to coming out on top?

"We need to contain them when we're on defense,'' Newton said. "We need a very good defensive effort and be able to tackle in space. On offense we just need to recognize when the dogs and blitzes are coming.''

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