Against long odds, Burbank High School football coach John Heffernan has turned the Titans into a beacon for the Sacramento City Unified School District.
Despite little booster support and playing for most of Heffernan's 11-year tenure in a dilapidated stadium or on the road when the home field was deemed unsafe to play on, the Titans have strung together seven consecutive winning seasons and seven trips to the postseason.
That includes 2011's 9-2 run and Metro Conference championship playing in their new $9.3 million stadium, one of the area's best.
Even with a district-mandated 20 percent cut in his athletic budget this summer because of revenue shortfalls, Heffernan, also the school's athletic director, isn't about to complain, especially when many other district football programs are fighting to survive.
Still, austerity is always a watchword on the south Sacramento campus.
"There aren't a lot of frills," he said. "We don't have a blocking sled. We never order a full set of uniforms. We make do with the basics."
Home gates are critical, so no game will have more impact on the athletic program's financial fortunes than when Grant travels to Titans Stadium on Sept. 7.
Twice when Grant was a member of the Metro Conference, Burbank played its home games against the Pacers in Del Paso Heights, including 2007 when the Titans upset the Pacers 27-21 to win their first league football title in 40 years.
"Grant was really gracious in hosting us those years, so it will be nice to return the favor and great for our school," Heffernan said. "With the cuts going around, gate and snack bar revenue are what keep our program alive."
It doesn't hurt that Burbank's run-based option offense and bruising defensive play are highly entertaining. Last year, Burbank averaged 39 points and 586 total yards.
This season, Heffernan has experience plus two dynamic juniors.
Back are running backs Isaiah Williams (1,496 yards, 23 touchdowns), the Metro co-offensive MVP, and Keith Marcus (1,125 yards, seven TDs), a Metro first-team selection. They will carry the ball behind returning starting guards Jakeen Hingano (5-foot-11, 265 pounds) and Noel Pinnock (6-2, 300).
While Metro Defensive MVP Maile Fainu has graduated and is now playing at Washington State, the Titans' defense will remain fast and physical with 6-2, 275-pound Feaumoengalu "Ngalu" Tapa and 5-10, 230-pound Edwin Fautua on the line. Kevin Powers and Benjamin Jones are at linebacker, and Berrick Washington is in the backfield.
Among the "special" players to watch, Heffernan said, are juniors Calvin Green and Ernest Jenkins.
Heffernan says Green, a cornerback-wide receiver, has the potential to follow in the footsteps of former Titans stars Eddie Elder of the Arizona Cardinals and Terrance Mitchell of Oregon.
Heffernan calls Jenkins, a quarterback, "exciting to watch" and a combination of two former standout Titans signal callers, Miles Freeman and Francisco Ragsdale.
"He can shake and move to avoid tackles, and he's big enough at 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds to run through tackles," Heffernan said.
Heffernan is the longest-tenured football coach in the Metro Conference. Line coach James Pale, defensive coordinator Ervin Kendall and junior varsity coach Charles Parker have been with Heffernan for nine seasons or more.
That coaching continuity, Heffernan says, is a reason Burbank can play a tough nonleague schedule. Bookending the Grant game are nonleague matchups Aug. 24 at Napa and Sept. 14 at Del Oro.