Normally, the Grant Pacers line up as a lead stallion in the Sac-Joaquin Section football playoffs.
Six times since 1992, the Pacers emerged as section champions, with a state open bowl title in 2008 serving as the program's crowning achievement.
In a Division I playoff opener today at No. 2-seeded Burbank, Grant steps into the starting gate embracing an unfamiliar role: dark horse.
And at 5-5, the Pacers showed just how wide open this season's large-school field is. Grant lost to top-seeded Franklin in a Delta Valley Conference game when its last-second field-goal attempt for the win was blocked and returned for a touchdown.
In Week 2, Burbank beat Grant 36-27 with a punishing ground game that produced 577 yards on 60 carries. John Heffernan, coach of the Titans (10-0), said his team will unleash another ground assault today.
In the first meeting, Isaiah Williams ran for 254 yards and two touchdowns. Backfield mates Calvin Green ran for 90 yards and Keith Marcus for 41. Ernest Jenkins, quarterback of the Titans' triple option, ran for 192 yards and three scores.
Burbank has three 1,000-yard rushers with Williams (1,640 and 23 touchdowns), Jenkins (1,103 and 12 TDs) and Green (1,009 and 10 TDs). Marcus has 584 yards and five scores. As a team, Burbank is averaging 547 yards and has rushed for 57 touchdowns.
Outside of Napa, Grant and Del Oro in early nonleague games, Burbank was not tested in the Metro Conference.
"We haven't had a game in which we've been tested in seven weeks," Heffernan said. "We've had mistakes but overcome them easily, but that won't be the case now, not against a team as good as Grant. I'm nervous about that part of it how sharp and focused we are."
Pacers coach Mike Alberghini said his team has come of age since it was 2-5 in a tough season with even more trying off-the-field issues.
"When we were 2-5, it didn't look good," Alberghini said. "We've played better. If we play well, the way we're capable of, good things can happen, and that's what we've put in front of our kids. It's your choice. Go out there and take care of business, and you have every chance in the world to win. If not, then we weren't meant to win in the playoffs."
What adds to the intrigue is how close the programs are. Heffernan and Alberghini are friends and cheer for each other except when on opposite sidelines. The players admire and respect one another.
"It adds to it, definitely," Heffernan said. "You're going to gravitate (to) and pull for guys who are a lot like you."