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  • Hector Amezcua / hamezcua@sacbee.com

    Said Nevada Union's Tanner Vallejo: "We're conditioned to know about NU-Grant, and what it means." The rivals often play close games – the series is tied 15-15-1. Said Grant coach Mike Alberghini: "I tell the kids they'd better bring it Friday, because we know Nevada Union will."

  • Andy Alfaro / Special to The Bee

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Preps Plus: It's game on again for football rivals Nevada Union, Grant

Published: Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:06 pm

The last time the teams played, the game ended in ankle-deep mud, at a neutral site. Nevada Union belted Grant 30-0 in a playoff game at Hughes Stadium in 2005. The Miners celebrated the rousing effort against their fiercest foe in the best high school rivalry in the region. The Pacers seethed, left to lick the muck out of their wounds. No one realized then that the series was headed for a break.

There would be no "next year" to settle the score, or the following year, or the one after that. Only after a seven-year hiatus has the rivalry been renewed.

Realignment and two coaches as stubborn as they are successful dropped their guard just enough to get the series reignited.

On Friday in Del Paso Heights, the No. 3-ranked Pacers play host to the No. 2 Miners of Grass Valley in a showdown that historically transcends the game.

This is the first time since the series started in the 1970s that Grant-NU has no league ramifications, but the game still matters.

The all-time series is tied 15-15-1.

Anyone who has played in the game can recite details of how it unfolded, be it at Nevada Union's tree-lined Hooper Stadium or at Grant's rustic Rutherford Field under dim lights and the sound of fans young and old singing and chanting as if at a social revival.

"Grant and Nevada Union – it's a generational thing," said Grant assistant coach Carl Reed, who played for the Pacers in the mid-1990s and has taught accounting and computer applications at his alma mater for seven years.

"Kids grow up here wanting to play for the Pacers, to have a helmet and jersey, and it's the same for NU players. And these games are forever. This is the high school version of Ohio State-Michigan."

One pushes the other

If there's one thing these programs learned over the years, it's this: They need each other. The teams pushed each other during the 1990s and 2000s as two of the elite programs in the Sac-Joaquin Section.

Four times the winner of the regular-season matchup won the league championship, and the loser – motivated by a cause – emerged as the section Division I champion.

"It's amazing, and I agree with that – Nevada Union and Grant got better because of each other," Miners coach Dave Humphers said. "It feels like Grant week again. There's a sense of urgency."

For Humphers and Grant coach Mike Alberghini, their most crushing defeats have come against each other.

NU-Grant games have come down to a goal-line stand, or a blocked kick, or a trick play in the closing moments. Even when Grant peeled off unbeaten seasons in 2006 and 2008, including a state title, Alberghini said his players "felt cheated" that there wasn't an NU game on the schedule.

"The game was always such a meaningful thing, bigger than anything else, the one you always looked forward to the most," Alberghini said. "We have some kids who had brothers play in this series and they have a sense of what it means, and we have others who are totally oblivious.

"I tell the kids they'd better bring it Friday, because we know Nevada Union will, and if we both bring it …"

Then expect a classic.

While the programs have been playing since the 1970s, the series really started to heat up when Alberghini and Humphers became head coaches at their schools in 1991. Both are tireless physical education instructors who use football as a vehicle to teach real-life issues.

In the head-to-head series, Humphers leads Alberghini 9-8-1. Combined, the coaches have won or shared 24 league championships, 10 section titles and 413 games. And there wasn't one team the other burned to beat more.

Through the years, the series included gamesmanship between the coaches.

Alberghini would take a jovial poke at Humphers' wing-T offense in a coaches' kickoff brunch, and Humphers on several occasions would have his team, already suited up, arrive at a Grant game a moment before kickoff by marching down the middle of the visitors' stands in a show of "We're here!"

But for all their battles, the coaches could not deny one thing: they respected each other. The admiration was enough that they knew they had to get this game back on the schedule.

"The rivalry was so good, (after a game in 2003) we're both walking across the field to shake hands when I realized, 'Coach Alberghini and I are a lot more similar than we are different,' " Humphers said. "We both have a lot of passion for football, working with young men, and both programs have a strong brotherhood with community pride. And the fortunes of a game – the results – are dependent on 16-, 17-year-old kids. That's fun."

Pressure to win

Said Grant linebacker Jonah Toma: "At Grant, there's a lot of pressure to play well because so many fans and alumni count on us, especially against NU. The main sports thing at Grant is football, and we're there to set an example."

In Grass Valley, assistant coaches wear T-shirts that detail the 9-8-1 series advantage for Humphers over Alberghini, as a tidy reminder.

"We're conditioned to know about NU-Grant, and what it means," Miners linebacker Tanner Vallejo said.

Early this week, there was as much humor in the air as intensity. Humphers said of Alberghini, "He's 20 or 30 years older than me."

To which Alberghini cracked, "Not that much, and I'm much better looking."

Alberghini is 65 and Humphers is 54. Both are Mira Loma graduates.

Humphers learned the tricks to the wing-T playing for his mentors, Don Brown and Gerry Kundert, in the mid-1970s, a scheme he has used successfully at NU. Alberghini was a baseball player at Mira Loma and Sacramento State.

He didn't play a down of football growing up.

"I knew I'd grow up hating the wing-T, and that I'd never want any part of it," Alberghini joked.

Alberghini has historically used an offense that matches his personality – straight forward and emphatic.

Nevada Union and Grant fans are excited about the series' return, with alums flying in from out of state for the game. Still, Alberghini said his wife, Mary, is leery.

"She wants the best for me, but asks, 'You really need more drama in your life?' "

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Joe Davidson



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