The most difficult stretch of Mike Alberghini’s storied coaching career finally eased a bit Monday night with an event everyone had longed for – a game.
A sense of normalcy returned to a Grant High School football program and its Del Paso Heights community that were rocked to the core by gunfire Friday. The Pacers hosted Beyer of Modesto in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoff opener three days after it was postponed because of tragedy.
Senior cornerback Jaulon “JJ” Clavo – known for his broad smile, personality and passion for all things Pacers – died from a gunshot wound to the neck just hours before Friday’s scheduled kickoff.
On Monday, the Pacers honored Clavo in their locker room with photos and flowers, some sent by area football programs. And they honored him on the field by prevailing 35-0 as Deshawn Collins and Mike Green combined for 170 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
The man tasked with keeping the Pacers united, was Alberghini, in his 47th year in the Twin Rivers Unified School District and 25th as Grant’s coach. Monday’s victory was the 262nd of Alberghini’s career and broke a tie with Max Miller for the most wins in regional history, but the proud old mentor was too numb to celebrate.
“I spent so much time crying over the weekend that it was hard to rally,” Alberghini said before kickoff in between hugging well-wishers, his eyes bloodshot. “This game, we have to do this. It’s part of life.”
The game was the easy part. The buildup was heart-wrenching. It included Nicole Clavo, Jaulon’s mother, leading the Pacers onto the field, which was lined with area players and coaches who showed up in support. She released balloons into the air for her son amid tears.
“She’s an amazing woman, so strong,” Alberghini said. “We’re trying to hang in there, but it’s hard. ... I was at my lowest depths Friday. We had a team meeting here that afternoon, then an hour and a half later, we have a kid practically dying in our arms. JJ was a great kid. He loved life. You can never get used to this.”
Grant sent out just 10 players on its first defensive series, with the 11th man there in spirit.
“That really brought me to tears,” said Clavo, wearing her son’s No. 5 jersey. “These kids, these players, know they have a brother looking down on them.”
Said Grant assistant coach Carl Reed, “We talked to the referees about it, and the Beyer coaches were OK with it, too. Everyone’s been wonderful. The support really helps.”
Said Grant senior linebacker Elijah Orr, a close friend of Jaulon’s: “All we can do now is just play and win every game for him. None of this feels real. None of us are sleeping well or eating much. Just so hard.”
Orr said the team continues to look to Alberghini for strength and guidance.
“There isn’t anyone better for these kids than Coach Al,” said Reverend Tommie Williams, a longtime Grant statistician and spiritual leader. “As great of a coach Al is, he’s an even better humanitarian. We’d be lost without him.”
Grant led 35-0 at halftime, playing inspired early and tired late. Collins scored on runs of one and 15 yards, and Green had scoring runs of seven, 82 and two yards.
The top-seeded Pacers (10-1) will host No. 9 Granite Bay (6-5) on Saturday at 6 p.m. The game wasn’t pushed back a day because of the shooting, which occurred about two miles from campus, but so Grant could have an extra day to prepare, given the circumstances.
“It’s the right thing to do,” section Commissioner Mike Garrison said. “It’s very important to play that game at Grant. The school has worked hard for it, earned it with the higher seed, and it’s a way for the community to heal.”
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