Rules are rules, as Mike Alberghini was quick to point out. Ten Grant Pacers were suspended by the Sac-Joaquin Section this week for a fight at Whitney High in Rocklin and were on the sidelines in street clothes Friday as their teammates hosted the Downey Knights in the opening round of the Section Division II playoffs.
Missing eight starters — including two of his best two-way players, Paris Warren and Christian Kinsey — proved to be too much for the No. 6 Pacers who were throttled 57-27 by the No. 11 Knights. It’s believed to be the first playoff road win for a Modesto city school in the last 20 years and is the worst home playoff loss in Alberghini’s four-decade coaching career at Grant.
Downey was in control from the start and put up 35 points in the first quarter. Grant defenders appeared confused for much of the game and the offense was in disarray as quarterback Xavier Johnson was hounded and harried for all 48 minutes.
“We also lost three starting offensive linemen and had to change all of our long snappers,” Alberghini said. “But I’m not going to cry about it and it’s not like they (Sac-Joaquin Section) went out of their way to punish us. The rule is the rule.”
Alberghini said he didn’t have a problem with Section Commissioner Mike Garrison’s decision to suspend his players. What he was upset about was the sixth seed out of the rough-and-tumble Sierra Foothill League instead of a fourth seed and a first-round bye, which Granite Bay got despite losing to Grant 29-21 in overtime on Sept. 21. Both teams finished 5-5 in the regular season and 3-3 in the SFL.
The suspended players still would have had to serve the suspensions next week, even if Grant and Granite Bay had switched seeds. But with a third of his roster suspended, and another player out due to concussion protocols, Alberghini would have liked to have had an extra week to prepare his squad and especially the junior varsity players he brought up this week.
“Our strength of schedule was there,” Alberghini said. Two of our losses are to teams that are still undefeated (Central of Fresno and Capital Christian), and we beat Granite Bay head-to-head, so I felt we should have been the fourth seed. I just wanted some consistency in the seedings.”
Grant was used to crushing Downey in the playoffs. The Modesto team came up to Del Paso Heights for the 2013 and 2014 playoffs and were beaten by a combined score of 115-35. None of the players on the field Friday night played back then, but Knights head coach Jeremy Plaa was on the sidelines for those drubbings. He remembers them well.
“We didn’t say too much about (road losing streak) this week, but even back in 2013 and 2014 we knew we’d keep getting pitted against Grant every year so until we can get over the hump and beat Grant we’re not going to take the next step for our program,” Plaa said. “So we scheduled teams like McClymonds and Merced, similar teams to Grant, that are very athletic and physical and I think it only helped us tonight.”
Plaa added that his squad didn’t care what happened to Grant with the suspensions, his team played a great game no matter who was on the field, and while Grant may put an asterisk next to the loss, he’ll take the ‘W’ anytime.
“We didn’t know what to expect with them missing so many kids, whether they would use that as a chip on their shoulder or not,” Plaa said. “But our kids came out hot, and I think we won the game in the first six minutes.”
Alberghini started the season with the youngest squad of his Pacers career and they weren’t expected to do much, let alone host a playoff game. But going 5-5 with one of the area’s toughest schedules and 3-3 in the toughest league in the section garnered them the post-season nod. But with 33 percent of their team and some defenders out, there was no slowing down Downey’s offensive juggernaut.
“They’re always big and they’re imaginative on offense,” Alberghini said. “They always throw plays at you that you haven’t seen. Plus, they were at full strength.”
One “imaginative” play in particular stood out. In the second quarter on a fourth-and-four play from Grant’s 21, Knights quarterback Bryce Gouker expertly tucked the ball into Robert Rivera’s gut then rolled out to his right along with the rest of his offense. That left Rivera, who waited a beat, all alone on the left side and he rolled into the end zone with nary a glancing blow until he got to the goal line.