Joe Davidson

Grant ends its drought, returns to the title game

sabeephotos@sacbee.com

Even the juggernauts have idle seasons.

Take the Grant Pacers.

The Sacramento-area leader in high school football victories in the 1990s and 2000s, punctuated by six Sac-Joaquin Section championships and scores of dynamic scholarship talents, Grant stalled a bit this decade after a 13-1 showing in 2010. Enduring miserable seasons by its lofty standards, Grant went 8-4, 5-6 and 8-4 in the past three seasons as area teams closed the gap and the program suffered every injury imaginable.

These days? Grant looks the part of fierce, regal and driven outfit, standing tall after three playoff weeks. The top-seeded Pacers beat No. 5 Vacaville 49-26 in a Division II semifinal on Friday night in Del Paso Heights to reach their first section championship game in four years.

Grant (13-0) withstood Vacaville’s ground game and quick, easy 7-0 lead to inflict its considerable will behind a behemoth offensive line dotted with three national recruits, each at least 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds of drive-blocking talent. Mike Green rushed for 116 yards and touchdowns of 5 and 42 yards, De-Shawn Collins darted for 141 yards and a 3-yard touchdown run, and Deondre Whittington-Grays rumbled for 63 yards and touchdowns of 29 and 3 yards.

Donovan Brown, the passionate Pacers quarterback, provided balance, tossing touchdown passes of 34 yards to Xavier Cox and 26 yards to Ariyon Huff for leads of 28-14 and 35-14 in the third quarter to all but bounce the Bulldogs of Solano County. A week earlier, Vacaville (10-3) eliminated defending champion Del Oro 35-28 with a late goal-line stand.

Grant now plays St. Mary’s of Stockton, which beat Elk Grove 23-15, on Dec. 6 at Sacramento State. Grant beat Elk Grove 26-19 in Delta League action earlier this season in the only close game this campaign for the Pacers.

The one constant for Grant over the decades has been coach Mike Alberghini. In his 46th year in the district as a coach and 24th as head coach, Alberghini beams at the potential of this team, even if silly penalties still gall him to the point of bulging veins in his neck and forehead. Mostly, he’s fond of this group – its personalities, effort and pride.

“We’re really coming together,” Alberghini said before the game. “It’s a matter of playing together as a group. For us, it’s a matter of playing the game and being physical and may the best man win. We have size and speed, and we’re athletic. We can be pretty good.”

Or very good, or perhaps even great, sans the penalties.

Grant’s greatest teams were dominating running clubs, though the 1996 section D-I title team featured record-breaking quarterback Chad Elliott. With 6-6 left tackle Darrin Paulo the anchor, Grant rushed for 338 yards against a Vacaville team not used to getting pushed around. But it’s the balance that sets Grant apart, according to opposing coaches.

“The most dangerous part is they can really pass, and they can run so well, and they have that tradition and ride it,” Vacaville coach Mike Papadopoulos said. “Grant’s the real deal. Very, very big and very, very athletic, all the way around. They have a lot of earth-moving guys. Impressive.”

Grant is as healthy now as it has been in four years, though a summer-camp injury allowed Collins to soar from fourth-string tailback to leading man. He has 2,174 yards and 27 touchdowns this season. The junior is shifty and quick, but he doesn’t carry the load alone. Green can run with speed and force, and Whittington-Grays, slowed by an ankle injury early this season, is the bullish, power element.

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