This one was as wild as it was unpredictable, tense, anxious and fun.
Sheets of rain pelted the Sacramento State track on Friday night during the national anthem, bouncing off the hard surface like projectiles rocketed out of the sky, and players, coaches and fans braved the elements.
Then the real fireworks started.
The Grant Pacers staged a late drive, including a 30-yard pass from Donovan Brown to Ariyon Huff on fourth and 7 on their 30, and it culminated on a Brown quarterback keeper for a touchdown with 1:53 left. Grant beat St. Mary’s of Stockton 21-14 in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship game, rejoicing in the program’s seventh such title since 1992 under famed coach Mike Alberghini, who fumed early, then celebrated with his giddy players when it was over, Grant fans exhaling and Rams fans deflated.
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In between, Alberghini went from a rainsuit to ward off the wet to his regular blue coaching garb for the second half when the rain stopped and fans were treated to a show.
Grant’s grit mirrors that of its beloved coach, in his 24th season heading the Pacers and 46th at the school as a coach/mentor overall. The Pacers (14-0) last tasted a section title in 2008, though they’ve had nationally ranked teams that fell just short since, including 2010, their last title game appearance.
“For us, it’s a Pacer-for-life attitude, us against the world,” Alberghini said this week. “We try to bring that attitude to the game, and we play as well as our emotions. We’ve overcome silly mistakes to play.”
Alberghini said he’s also grown as a coach, as his program has grown this season.
“As we get older, we maybe get a slower up here,” Alberghini said, pointing to his head the other day. “You learn not to worry about the outcome and do everything you can to prepare, and you put faith in your players – and good things happen.”
The coach had faith in Brown, whom he has hugged and ripped on plenty this season, sometimes within the same drive. Brown’s 41-yard scoring strike to Huff tied it 14-14 early in the third a moment after Demetrius Ferguson electrified with a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. And Alberghini had faith in Brown, whom he calls “the perfect quarterback for us,” on that late 30-yard pass to Huff to keep the season alive. And Brown had faith in his weary legs to leg out the winning score.
Alberghini and Brown and company then watched anxiously as St.Mary’s drove to the Grant 6 as time ran out.
There was chaos and confusion in the second half as the officiating crew from the southern part of the section threw three late pass-interference calls on Grant, though they did sort out a near melee that started when a Ram chop-blocked Grant standout left tackle Darrin Paulo, cutting him down at the knees.
And there was a human element, too. Grant seniors TieNeal Martin and Malik Goss-Pruitt collided in the end zone in the secondary, causing a 10-minute stoppage of play. Both teams took a knee in support, a unit of one. Goss-Pruitt walked off on his own power, but Martin had his face mask removed as he was placed on a stretcher, though he was able to move his extremities.
He then talked his way off that stretcher moments later but wasn’t able to talk his way back into the game as coaches and Sac State trainers urged him to rest.
Grant took a 7-0 lead with 11:15 to go in the second quarter on a one-yard plunge by fullback Deondre Whittington-Grays.
The senior powered his way for 94 yards.