EL SOBRANTE -- El Cerrito High entered its Northern California Division III regional championship game Saturday night as an overwhelming choice to advance to the state final next weekend.
With four players committed to Division I colleges, including three to Pacific-12 Conference schools, the Gauchos' game against Sacred Heart Prep of Atherton was supposed to be a mere formality.
But El Cerrito proved to be no match for the 600-student private school as the Gators rolled to a 42-7 victory at De Anza High behind a sensational performance from running back/hard-hitting linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven.
The Sacred Heart Prep star rushed for 160 yards and four touchdowns in 15 carries and played relentless defense, including a second-quarter hit that knocked El Cerrito quarterback Keilan Benjamin from the game.
"We can blame it on mistakes, we can blame it on not executing, we can blame it on injuries, we can blame it on a lot of things," El Cerrito coach Kenny Kahn said after consoling his heartbroken players. "But I don't want to take away from Sacred Heart. Congratulations to Sacred Heart.
"But I am still proud of what my boys accomplished. These past two seasons, they've shown El Cerrito, they've shown our community what we're capable of, and they know continuing on you have to fight through adversity."
Sacred Heart Prep led 21-0 at halftime and then drove 61 yards for a touchdown to open the third quarter. Burr-Kirven's 36-yard run moved the Gators to the 17. Five plays later, he scored from the 1 to stretch the advantage to 28-0.
El Cerrito, which beat Marin Catholic last week to win a North Coast Section championship, got on the scoreboard later in the third quarter when UCLA-bound Adarius Pickett ran in from the 12.
The Gauchos (12-3) then forced a punt, giving their fans reason for hope, but fumbled the ball back to Sacred Heart Prep two plays later. When Burr-Kirven scored from the 7 with 54 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the Gators led 35-7.
The game ended with a running clock, which many thought would happen to Sacred Heart Prep.
Kahn said his players were not overconfident about the matchup, noting that they brought a proper attitude to the field.
"But the truth of the matter is, we had a number of adversities tonight that we had to overcome," Kahn said. "This is the first time ever, as a coach, that we had a running clock put on us at this capacity in this type of game."
Burr-Kirven had said during the week that Sacred Heart Prep wanted to earn El Cerrito's respect and that the Gators were "no joke."
El Cerrito found out right away that SHP (13-1) was no joke. The Gauchos went three-and-out on their opening series and then watched Sacred Heart Prep ride the back of Burr-Kirven to reach the end zone.
On that opening series, Burr-Kirven carried four times for 41 yards, including a 9-yard scoring run in which he punctuated with a bone-crushing blow as he crossed the goal line.
El Cerrito fumbled on its next series, and Sacred Heart Prep quickly capitalized. After taking over at the Gauchos' 34, SHP needed seven plays to stretch its lead to 14-0.
Andrew Segre, who rushed for 98 yards for the night, finished the series with a 1-yard run.
El Cerrito drove inside the SHP 20 the next time it possessed the ball but stalled.
On fourth-and-9 from the 16, Benjamin was sacked for a 3-yard loss.
"We said we belonged here," Burr-Kirven said. "Going into the game, I got interviewed and said we're not going to roll over for them. I don't think they expected us to come out and hit like we did."