Peter Lavorato knows plenty about beating long odds, and taking advantage of a keen opportunity. They are topics that largely define him and have helped shape his life.
The 61-year-old Sacred Heart Prep (Atherton, Calif.)
football coach hopes to pass those lessons along quickly to the Gators, who Saturday are big underdogs in the Northern California Division III football finals against El Cerrito
, a team featuring at least seven Division I college prospects including three of the state's top 20 senior recruits.
An upset victory would vault SHP onto California's biggest stage, a state championship tilt with the Southern California champion in Carson Dec. 21.
"(El Cerrito) is bigger, stronger and faster than we are," Lavorato said. "Defensively, we can have players in the right spots doing all the right things and still not be able to stop them. … But our kids have great pride. They're not going to back down or play scared."
Neither did Lavorato when he was their age.
He didn't play the sport until his senior year in high school. He attended a boarding school in Edmonton, Alberta that didn't offer football so he begged his father to let him go to a school that did.
He played one season there, had some success, and was invited to a camp put on by the Canadian Football League's Edmonton Eskimos — Lavorato's favorite team — and run by head coach Ray Jauch, a former running back for the 1958 national champion Iowa Hawkeyes.
Jauch told Lavorato after the camp he was good enough to play at the next level.
"I remember my eyes welling up I was so excited and proud," Lavorato said. "This man was an idol of mine. I put him on a pedestal. For him to tell me this was sort of overwhelming."
Jauch was earnest in his evaluation and helped Lavorato secure four scholarship offers. He landed at Utah State where he played four seasons as a strong safety. The Eskimos made Lavorato their No. 1 pick of the 1975 draft and he helped them to five Grey Cup titles during a solid 10-year CFL career.
Since then he's coached the game in Hollister, Gilroy, back to Canada and spent the last 11 years at Sacred Heart Prep.
"It's been a very good and interesting life thus far," said Lavorato, who along with his wife Nancy, a Saratoga native, have raised three now-grown children. "It's taken many turns."
It was a path he never envisioned heading into his senior year, much like the Gators couldn't have predicted their stellar season after returning just eight seniors from their 2012 Central Coast Section championship team.
But a young line, coached by Matt Moran, a Stanford starting lineman in the John Elway era, came along faster than anticipated. The two seniors on the line, Patrick Finnigan
(6-foot-2, 225 pounds) and Alex Castro
(6-1, 200), have led the way.
The fly offense, directed by sophomore quarterback Mason Randall
, has been explosive — especially of late like in Saturday's 56-21 CCS title win over Pacific Grove when senior running back Andrew Segre
rushed for a school record 360 yards on 30 carries, including six touchdowns.
Normally the Gators spread the carries around, but when the team's other primary back Ricky Grau
(955 yards, 11 touchdowns) broke his hand, the 5-11, 190-pound Segre (1,348, 19) — one of the school's top soccer players — was relegated to workhorse.
"He's got a great combination of really good feet, power and speed," Lavorato said.
The fastest player on the team leads a stout defense, which has allowed just 9.0 points per game.
Lavorato calls 6-1, 200-pound junior linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven
"the best high school player I've ever coached."
Considering two former Gators — Ryan Gaertner and Brian Moran — are at Stanford, Duke Moran is at Cal and John Oppenheimer is an All-Ivy League lineman at Yale, that's saying something.
But none of those guys ran a 4.5 40-yard dash, like Burr-Kirven, or recorded a gaudy 164 tackles. He along with defensive end Nic Collazo
(6-5, 205), free safety Noah Kawasaki
and Paul Westcott
(109 tackles) have all had superb seasons.
But Burr-Kirven, who also has four interceptions, is special.
"He's the real deal," Lavorato said. "He's athletic, fast, hits like a truck and is very intelligent."
Unless he grows, Burr-Kirven will probably play strong safety in college. Just like his coach did.
"There's no comparison," he said. "I was pretty fast. But not like Ben."