The image was symbolic.
Some two hours before kickoff on Friday night at Rutherford Memorial Stadium, Mike Alberghini worked a broom in the Grant High School locker room. The longtime Pacers coach swept the debris – ankle tape, papers, cups – and sighed at the irony.
He’s the boss here, never beyond the menial tasks of a quick tidy up. And since this is his team and his program and his locker room, this is, ultimately, his mess.
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Grant is limping and laboring along at an uncharacteristic 3-5 after falling to Sheldon 30-27 on a last-second field goal by Jack Dolinar. The Pacers need to win at least one of its final two games against winless Davis and first-place Jesuit, and perhaps prevail in both, to extend its on-going Sac-Joaquin Section playoff streak to 27 seasons. That’s one of the great streaks in regional history, any sport.
On the other side of the room, there was a puddle, thanks to a leak in the ceiling. Said the old coach, “When it rains ...”
It’s been a deluge of disappointment in Del Paso Heights, where football is the social epicenter of a region that has long embraced the Pacers, and where the groans rumble like so much thunder.
One thing about the fans at Grant. They speak up. They vent. During Alberghini’s 27 years as head coach, there have always been cries for his replacement or new staff. Everyone’s an expert in the stands, just as they are on social media.
Even during some of Alberghini’s 10 unbeaten regular seasons, someone would grouse that it is the fault of the coach for a playoff loss. Alberghini has no intention of stepping down. His résumé is proof he has earned as many seasons as he wants, beyond the stadium bearing his name: 273 wins, the 15 league championships, seven section titles and the 2008 CIF State Open Division title. Grant last week fell out of The Bee’s rankings for the first time since the opening week of the 1991 season, a run of 269 football weeks.
“My wife Mary worries about me,” Alberghini said of the one person he cherishes more than his beloved Pacers. “I know this isn’t going to kill me one way or another.”
But the wounded pride? You can see it the coach’s face and hear it in his tone. The Pacers have lost some of their swagger, undone by penalties, turnovers and injuries while dealing with opponents who no longer fear them.
“When you’ve done something well for 27 years, and then you’re onto something we’re not used to – losing – it’s hard,” Alberghini said. “I have never suffered through this before, and it’s tough.
“When you’re winning, you’re the smartest damn coach in the world. When you’re losing, you’re suddenly the worst coach ever born. But those things don’t bother me. We’ll keep working with these kids and get better.”
Losses on the field are one thing. But Coach Al, as he’s known in this region, understands real loss. He held a dying player in his arms two years ago after J.J. Clavo was shot hours before a playoff game. He mentors players who have lost loved ones, sometimes to illness, sometimes to violence, sometimes when they just up and leave town. Football remains a positive outlet, regardless of what the scoreboard reads.
“The criticism, I’m used to it,” Alberghini said. “People question those who have been here the longest. I just know that if we’re not disappointed as coaches, then we shouldn’t be coaching. We’re disappointed.”
No one feels the losses more than the coaches. Grant’s staff is full of Pacers alums. This means the world to them. This includes athletic director and longtime assistant Carl Reed.
“By no means is it really doom and gloom,” Reed said of the big picture of life and football. “And we still control our own destiny. We can still get into the playoffs. But our football program is a lightening rod.
“So many great things are happening on our campus – good kids, students going to UCLA or Cal, the criminal justice academy – but football is the galvanizing thing here. It’s the heart of the community, and all eyes are on us.”
Reed usually dabbles in social media as a way to promote the Pacers. But he closed out his Facebook account because he grew tired of the heat – people offering scathing input more than solutions and support.
“I can only take so much negativity on social media,” Reed said. “Grant is a different place, unlike any other. There’s deep passion here, which I love and respect. But society now is smile in your face and then tell you what you think is wrong later. Show support by backing us now. Coach Al isn’t on social media. He’s the lucky one for that.”
Teams that sport 5-5 or 4-6 records have made the section playoffs countless times. Del Oro went 4-6 in the regular season in 2015, got mad, got even, and then ran the table, winning a CIF State title.
This much we do know: The regional game is better when Grant is in the postseason. Teams celebrate when they topple this program. The Pacers remain a unique draw, right on down to the coach with the broom.