The Sacred Heart Prep football team has had more than its fair share of haters this season.
It began during camp, when haters said the Gator non-league schedule was soft — SHP responded by going 5-0.
It continued during the Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division schedule when haters said PAL play would bring them back to Earth and that, after losing so many seniors from last year’s championship team, they’d barely scrape by. SHP responded by going 4-1 and earning a No. 1 seed come Central Coast Section playoff time.
Surely, the haters said, the CCS playoffs will expose the Gators.
Wrong, again. A 3-0 run and a dominant win over Pacific Grove means SHP is now a back-to-back CCS Division IV champion.
Haters point to SHP as an academic school and not a football-tough team. They’ve been called soft, physically inferior.
And with the CIF Division IV Northern California championship around the corner, everyone — literally, everyone — keeps the mounds of hate coming. If you read the message boards, according to the haters, SHP shouldn’t even show up to El Sobrante High School Saturday night to play the mighty El Cerrito Gauchos.
But if you know anything about Pete Lavorato and his Gators, you know the lack of respect isn’t new to his boys. In fact, it’ll be the fuel they use to give El Cerrito one heck of a football game. And if you know anything about this season’s SHP squad, there’s no way they’ll show up to Richmond on Saturday and just roll over to the Gauchos.
“It’s funny,” Lavorato said, “the kids were talking about it during the pregame team meal how we have to continuously earn people’s respect. You’d think that after winning three CCS titles in four years that wouldn’t be the case. But, it is what it is. We have a tremendous amount of respect for El Cerrito. They’re a very good football team. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to compete. We respect them. And if they respect that, well, we appreciate that. But if they don’t, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
El Cerrito would be mistaken to underestimate SHP, for sure. Sacred Heart Prep has fielded one of the Central Coast Section’s stingiest defenses during its run of back-to-back Division IV titles. In 26 games (24 of them wins) the Gator defense has averaged only nine points a game. Relying on a combination of speed, athleticism and intelligence, the SHP defense is the backbone of the team and will determine their fate Saturday night.
The Gauchos went 6-0 in El Cerritos’ Tri-County Rock Division and are about as athletic of a team as you’ll in the NCS — with the number of NCAA Division I recruits already well documented. They’ve put up an average of 42 points a game with that number climbing to 53 during the North Coast Section playoffs with a high of 64 in a win over Tamalpais. Only three teams (all of them in the beginning of the season) have held the Gauchos to under 40 points.
Chief amongst SHP’s concerns is the play of the UCLA-bound Adarius Pickett, a player who is dynamite with the football in his hands. As an offensive threat, either on the ground or through the air, Pickett is averaging 14 yards a touch. In the DIV championship game against Marin Catholic, he tallied 255 yards and four touchdowns. He also mans one of the corner positions for El Cerrito.
Pickett isn’t alone. SHP will also have to contend with quarterback Keilan Benjamin, who hooked up with brother Keith for three touchdowns passes in that win over Marin, Jalen Harvey and James Houston.
“We don’t take anyone lightly,” Lavorato said. “In fact, we always feel like we have to play well to win. We play hard. We play clean and we play fast. When we break that huddle, it’s all about pride and poise — pride in the program and poise on the field.”
While the Gauchos are playing on a whole different level right now, a closer look at their schedule points at a September loss to Campolindo. That’s of importance considering Campolindo came into the Peninsula Athletic League around that same time and took down Menlo-Atherton in what was a close game until the fourth quarter. SHP defeated M-A this season — so it’s something interesting to point out if you’re trying to guess how the Gators will fare against El Cerrito.
“We played a lot of strong teams and we haven’t backed down from anyone,” Lavorato said. “And we won’t. This is going to be a game, I’ll tell you that much right now.
“Bottom line is, talk is cheap. We’ll go out and play and that’s really what it’s all about. The truth is, we have a tremendous amount of respect for El Cerrito. But you have to go out there and play the game.”