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Ben Burr-Kirven returns for Sacred Heart Prep this season after the marquee linebacker led the Gators to the Division III state championship game last year.
Last year was a magical season for the Sacred Heart Prep football team. Not only did the Gators win their third Central Coast Section championship in four years — and their second in a row — they went on to dismantle El Cerrito in the Northern California Division III championship game to earn a spot in the state title game, falling 27-15 to Corona Del Mar.
While coach Pete Lavorato won’t come out and say returning to the state championship is the main goal for the 2014 season, he did say the Gators’ focus is returning to the playoffs and then taking their shot once again.
“You can’t deny what happened last year. It was unbelievable and it does put some pressure on us. I feel it myself. Teams will circle us (on the calendar),” Lavorato said. “But once the (2014) season starts, it’s one game at a time. The goal is to always win CCS. Would we like to win the PAL Bay? Sure. But we want to play more games (in the playoffs).”
And given the level of talent returning for SHP this season, the Gators should be the odds-on favorites to win their third straight CCS DIV title.
Despite the prolific offensive numbers the Gators put up last season — they averaged 34 points per game — the defensive side of the ball is where they hang their hats. Last season, they allowed an average of 10 points per game and had eight games where they allowed a touchdown or less.
This season, Lavorato returns nine starters from last year’s defense.
“The reason we’ve been as good as we have for the last five years is the strength of our defense,” Lavorato said. “First, it was more offensive, but our defense has gotten better and better.”
Expected to the lead the way defensively is linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, who had a breakout season in 2013. He put himself on the recruiting map with strong performances against El Cerrito in the Nor Cal championship game and a double-digit tackle performance in the state title game.
Despite the accolades that have come Burr-Kirven’s way, Lavorato doesn’t believe he has changed.
“I don’t think there is (added pressure). Ben likes football. He’s a football player. That’s all that matters,” Lavorato said. “All he cares about is playing every game he can.”
Burr-Kirven won’t be asked to do it alone, however. Also returning is linebacker/defensive end Will Johnson, who was blowing up opponents early in the season in 2013. Johnson could assume SHP’s “Gator” position this season, which would essentially allow him to roam all over the field on defense.
“I think we definitely will have a good defense,” Lavorato said. “They’ll be solid, fast.”
While Burr-Kirven will be expected to wreck shop on defense, he is far from a one-trick pony. He proved last season he is more than capable shouldering the load on offense as well. He rushed for a game-high 161 yards and four touchdowns in the Gators’ 42-7 win over El Cerrito in the Nor Cal title game.
With last year’s starting offensive backfield graduated, Burr-Kirven is expected to have a bigger role on offense this season. As will JR Hardy, who focused mainly on defense last season. A number of other players should factor into the running game as well, including Andrew Robinson, Riley Tinsley, Griffin Kramer and newcomer Lapitu Mahoni.
“I actually think our running game is in pretty good shape,” Lavorato said. “It’s probably going to be running back by committee, but if we wanted to start Ben and Hardy, that would be a pretty good backfield.”
The offense will also be buoyed by the return of last year’s starting quarterback Mason Randall. A starter as a sophomore, Lavorato said Randall’s feel for the game and the offense has grown tremendously since last season.
“He’s just so much more aware of things. Not that he wasn’t last year. He was a very savvy sophomore quarterback (last season),” Lavorato said. “He’s reading things better. Making good choices. (He’s understanding more) just the idiosyncrasies of our offense. He throws the ball harder, he’s more accurate. He knows where guys are going to be now.”
With Randall’s year of varsity experience, Lavorato said he could open up the offense more this season.
“We might just throw a little more this season,” Lavorato said.
Lavorato said if he has any concerns about his team, it’s on the offensive line. And that being said, the Gators return two starting lineman in Wyatt Welch and Thomas Rogers, along with junior tight end Andrew Dashbacher.
“All the guys coming back played 15 games last year. That’s like a season and half,” Lavorato said. “That’s a lot of experience.”