Mike Alberghini could have quit and no one other than Brett Favre would have blinked.
At 61, the Grant (Sacramento) High School football coach had climbed Kilimanjaro and slayed Godzilla in one mighty swoop last December with a monumental 25-20 upset of Long Beach Poly in the CIF State Open Division Bowl game at the Home Depot Center in Carson.
Few thought Grant — from the gritty neighborhoods of Del Paso Heights — would even be selected into the game over six-time mythical national champion De La Salle from the squeaky clean suburban sidewalks of Concord.
And not a soul or scribe thought the unproven Pacers had a Hail Mary’s chance to beat Long Beach Poly, which has produced more NFL players than any high school in the land.
But with one courageous effort in one spectacular game, the Pacers proved beyond a shadow of a doubt they not only belonged in the game but on the national map with the other great programs from California.
“It proved what we had been saying all along,” Alberghini said. “That we were a legitimate program capable of playing with anyone.”
It was a crowning jewel for the program and especially Alberghini, who was named the MaxPreps National Coach of the Year after improving his record through 18 seasons to 192-32-1.
With only three starters returning – and none on defense – it was also a perfect drop off point to an illustrious career. He’d won 15 league titles and six Sac-Joaquin Section crowns. This after a landmark career as a baseball coach, winning 427 games in 18 seasons including a then state-record 37 contests in 1989.
Grant HS, CA vs Long Beach Poly HS, CA
He’s coached and mentored some of Northern California’s top athletes, including major leaguer Ricky Jordan and numerous NFL talents like Donte’ Stallworth, C.J. Wallace, Perris Warren, Ontario Smith and Aaron Garcia.
Frankly he had nothing left to prove.
But guess what? Alberghini decided to stay and it turns out last year’s Poly win wasn’t the peak.
Right now is the high point and until the Pacers lose his legacy continues to soar.
That doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon.
Their 9-0 start and climb back up the national rankings — No. 19 in the Xcellent 25 — is probably more impressive and surprising even than last year’s title.
They’ve outscored opponents — get this! — 425 to 13. That’s right, 13!
If not for a double-reverse second-quarter pass for a touchdown in a 56-7 victory over Rosemont Oct. 9 and a last-minute Hail Mary 45-yard bomb in a 62-6 win over McClatchy last week, Grant would be pitching a season-long shutout.
With no returning starters on defense.
“Yes, I’ve seen a few things in my day but this has even surprised me a little,” Alberghini said.
So how exactly have they recorded seven shutouts with a brand new defense?
Defensive coordinator Reggie Harris actually has tried to keep things very basic, letting a huge and strong front, led by 6-foot-3, 325-pound noseguard Vei Moala, control the line while a brigade of athletic linebackers and backs make plays.
Moala (7.3 tackles per game), Darryl Paulo (6-2, 230, 7.9) and Faigame Lopa (6-2, 245, 7.0), all juniors lineman, simply can’t be moved or blocked.
“All of them played at times and sophomores and came into this year understanding what we do,” Alberghini said.
They hold up ball-carriers and players like Faga Tuamasaga (6-0, 210), James Sample (6-2, 175), Deandre Washington (6-2, 225), Vidal Davis (5-11, 175), Shaquille Thompson (6-1, 180), like sharks, move in for the kill.
Sample actually leads the team with 8.6 tackles per game, but everyone else is between four and six.
Lopa is the sack leader with 12, followed by Moala (nine) and Tuamasaga and Cameron, who have combined for 10. Grant has 53 sacks overall.
When teams have time to pass, safety Ronald Fields and Thompson, brother of Cal standout Syd Thompson, have contributed six and three interceptions, respectively.
What’s most scary is that seven key defenders will return next year.
“Besides being fast and strong and aggressive, what I like best about the group is they are disciplined,” Alberghini said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They don’t commit a lot of penalties.”
Montgomery coach Jason Franci, who just became the winningest coach in the Redwood Empire part of the state with 218 victories, was shaking his head after the Pacers defeated his Vikings 42-0 to start the season. Montgomery has gone on to win eight of its next nine.
Other impressive offenses that the Pacers have shut out are Bellevue, Wash., which averages 35 points per game and Oak Ridge, which averages 31.5. Five of Grant’s nine opponents have yet to score 200 points this season and three have scored 141 or less.
“It’s the best defense I’ve seen in a very long time, maybe ever,” Franci told Joe Davidson of the Sacramento Bee.
Hearty and hungry
With such a defense, the offense doesn’t have to take many chances either. The Pacers simply lets a big strong offensive line open holes for returning All-State running back Devontae Butler, probably the only legitimate Division I senior prospect on the roster.
The 5-11, 190-pounder has rushed just 167 times but for 1,839 yards and 30 touchdowns while rarely playing the second half of games.
He rushed for 108 yards and two TDs against Poly last year, so he can move it against the big boys.
“He just gets better and better,” Alberghini said. “I’m surprised more (colleges) aren't after him.”
Senior quarterback Glenn Deary (49 of 106, 852 yards, nine touchdowns) is steady but unproven in tight games.
That’s because none of the games have been remotely in doubt. Twice the Pacers have scored 60 points by midway through the second quarter which required a running clock.
“Problem is our backups and hungry and pretty good too,” Alberghini said.
Which may be the most impressive part of Grant’s 2009 run – its hunger and urgency.
Win a state title and national ranking and with so few returners, and it might have been easy to take things slow this season. … rebuild. … reload. Instead the Pacers have quickly re-invented themselves into an even more impressive entity.
Alberghini said they can thank local power Del Campo High School for that.
Seems the Cougars pulled out all the stops playing Grant in a four-way scrimmage to start the season under searing heat. Del Campo, currently 8-1, took it to the Pacers pretty good.
Grant (Sacramento, CA) vs. Bellevue, WA
“(Del Campo) was jumping up and down, running plays you normally save for midseason,” Alberghini said. “They were just very excited and good for them. It drove the point home after that teams weren’t going to be playing against Grant High School, but playing against the state champions. It was the best thing that could have happened to us and it saved me 10,000 speeches.”
Cherishing the moment
Alberghini, now 62, said he never really ever considered retiring after the Poly victory. He’s retired from teaching and has a bigger and healthier coaching staff than ever.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with all my time,” he said. “Besides, I love doing this still.”
He admits to popping in a DVD highlighting the Poly game time to time. It reminds him of that magical evening, the raucous celebration and the quiet call he made to his wife Mary when he finally returned to the hotel room. She had watched the game on TV back in Sacramento with Alberghini’s father.
“It was a real nice exchange,” he said of that moment. “I then checked my text messages – I must have had 40 or 50 of them. It was a culmination of a long season and made me think of my entire career. I’m an old man and I was worn out at that point.
“It took a couple of days to realize the magnitude of that game. Might be years and years later still until I full realize it. I know it was a very special moment and very special game. It was a magnificent effort on both sides – neither side really deserved to lose. It’s a moment I’ll cherish forever.”
But, the Pacers are very much in position to repeat it. They’ll have to win an absolutely stacked Sac-Joaquin Section Division II field that will likely include St. Mary’s-Stockton (9-0), Rocklin (9-0) and Del Oro (7-2).
Many are anticipating a Grant-St. Mary’s showdown that could decide the Northern California Open Division berth. St. Mary’s has scored 481 points, including at least 48 in six straight games.
“They have a remarkable offense and we obviously have a pretty good defense,” Alberghini said. “That would be a heck of a match-up. But we have a long way before we can even think about a game like that.”
That said, he’s confident Grant can return to the Home Depot Center.
“If we maintain the same discipline we’ve shown all year and stay healthy, I like our chances,” he said.
E-mail Mitch Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org.