How is a team that finished the regular season with a 3-7 overall record playing for a Northern California football championship?

Two reasons.

First, Sacred Heart Prep played “the game” through its Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division schedule. As an A league, the six-team Bay Division receives four Central Coast Section playoff bids. As the fourth-place finisher, the Gators punched their ticket to the postseason. Secondly, is what SHP did with that playoff berth — playing its best football since fifth-year head coach Mark Grieb took over the program — qualifying for the CIF Division 5-A tournament by virtue of capturing the CCS Division IV title.

“Each week we were making improvements and getting better,” Grieb said. “And it just didn’t end up showing up in the wins and loss column. Then I think once we got to the playoffs … we’re really playing as well as we have all year.”

Even with their three wins in the CCS tournament, the Gators still own a record below the .500 mark at 6-7. And now, in the CIF State Football Championship Division 5-A Northern California regional championship game, SHP is going up against the University Prep Panthers of Redding, who own an undefeated record of 13-0.

SHP hosts the game 1 p.m. Saturday at Palatella Field.

The Gators earned the homefield advantage from playing a tougher schedule and earning a higher ranking (No. 203 in the state, according to CalPreps.com; University Prep is ranked No. 225). And despite their 3-7 regular-season record, it’s difficult to deny the Gators the powerhouse status they’ve achieved in postseason wins over Alisal-Salinas 42-0, Hillsdale 42-12, and Homestead-Cupertino in the CCS finals 51-28.

“The biggest challenge that we faced was just trying to keep our confidence up,” Grieb said. “We lost so many close games. And I think six or seven of those (regular-season) games could have gone either way.”

The toughest loss to swallow for SHP came in the regular-season finale Valpo Bowl. The Gators fell to rival Menlo School 18-15. It was the first time during Grieb’s tenure SHP has lost its rivalry game.

But then came the silver lining — a message written by one of SHP’s players on the locker room white board that read: “Guys, let’s get fired up. CCS playoffs. Let’s stick together and go get this thing.”

It became the rally cry that propelled the team into its dominant playoff run.

“And I think that attitude was really remarkable,” Grieb said.

SHP’s late-bloomer effect is much in part to the development on its offensive line. The Gators began the season with just one returning offensive lineman in senior John Adrian Dioli, who transitioned from guard to center this year.

The rest of the line — juniors RK Stephens, Tyler Wong and Mason Chetcuti, and freshman Aseli Fangupo — were all new to the starting lineup this season.

“Who are all really good players,” Grieb said. “They were really thrust into a starting position this year. And I think it’s taken us a long time to get into a place where, if we get a different look, we’re going to block it right.”

To add to this coalition of newbies, longtime SHP assistant coach Mark Fabbri took over as offensive and defensive line coach for the first time this season. The Gators also brought in a ringer in Mike Doyle — fresh off a CCS championship as head coach of the Sequoia baseball team — to work with Fabbri as offensive line coach.

Add to the mix senior tight end Mat Bucher, who has a modest 12 receptions for 129 yards this year but has been a key component to the Gators’ blocking schemes to free up running backs Andrew Latu (112 carries, 652 yards and 12 TDs), senior Luis Mendoza (88 carries, 596 yards and 10 TDs); and senior Zach Freire (54 carries, 523 yards and three TDs).

Freire is coming off a big performance in the CCS playoffs, as he gained 375 all-purpose yards in three games. He is SHP’s leading receiver this season with 27 catches for 488 yards and four touchdowns. 

“He’s an everything kind of guy,” Grieb said.

University Prep runs a balanced offense in the shotgun Wing T led by senior dual-threat quarterback Payton Henderson. Henderson is in his second year as a starter under second-year head coach Dustin Fortenberry.

Fortenberry took over the team in February after the previous head coach, Darren Trueblood, died Feb. 17, 2021, after a battle with cancer.

Winner of Saturday’s Northern California title game will advance to the Division 5-A State Championship Bowl Dec. 11 to face the winner of the Southern California regional championship between Northview-Covina and Colony-Ontario.

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