CARSON -- An hour after their loss in the Division III state football championship game, Sacred Heart Prep players slowly emerged from their locker room at the StubHub Center on Saturday.
Time to reflect on the journey could wait.
The pain of coming so close to a state championship, only to fall short, was too fresh.
"There aren't words to describe how much this meant to me," star linebacker/running back Ben Burr-Kirven said after the Gators' 27-15 loss to Corona del Mar. "This is going to be in my mind forever. I will never forget this as long as I live. They will always be flashing through my head, what happened in this game."
What happened Saturday was not how Sacred Heart Prep drew it up, from the 21-point first-quarter deficit to the three second-half fumbles.
The Gators crept to within six points at halftime on Andrew Robinson's 37-yard interception return for a touchdown and Burr-Kirven's highlight-reel 47-yard run in which the junior evaded several defenders before coasting into the end zone.
But Sacred Heart Prep fumbled on its first series of the second half, which led to a short field goal, then continued to give away the ball as it threatened to pull closer.
The crusher came after senior Andrew Segre, the team's leading rusher this season, reinjured a shoulder that had bothered him all season.
After being checked out by the training staff, Segre re-entered for a second-and-4 play at the Corona del Mar 15. As he received the handoff, the shoulder popped back out of the socket and the ball tumbled to the grass.
Corona del Mar recovered.
"That was really frustrating," said Segre, who finished with 54 yards in 16 carries.
But coach Pete Lavorato applauded the gritty effort from the running back who ran for 351 yards and scored six touchdowns in a Central Coast Section final two weeks earlier against Pacific Grove.
"What a warrior he is, playing like that all year," Lavorato said.
Sacred Heart Prep played a nearly flawless game to reach the state final, routing heavily favored El Cerrito 42-7 in the Northern California Division III championship game.
But the Gators were far from perfect against an opponent seeking to complete a perfect season.
Corona del Mar (16-0) received the opening kickoff and went 75 yards in 11 plays for the first score. The Sea Kings converted three third-down plays on the drive, including a 5-yard pass from Luke Napolitano to Bo St. Geme for the touchdown.
Sacred Heart Prep then went three-and-out, and a bad snap on the punt gave Corona del Mar the ball just 29 yards from the end zone. Napolitano's 5-yard pass to Connor Sage made it 14-0.
After Sacred Heart Prep (13-2) crossed midfield for the first time, Corona del Mar's Barrett Barbato returned an interception 58 yards for a touchdown that stretched the Sea Kings' lead to 21-0 with 11 seconds left in the first quarter.
"That's always difficult," Lavorato said of the huge early deficit. "But we didn't give up, and we kept coming back."
One play after Sacred Heart Prep dropped an interception that probably would have gone for a score, Robinson snagged a pass that deflected off the intended receiver, and he dashed 37 yards for a touchdown.
Sacred Heart Prep got the two-point conversion as Burr-Kirven barreled into the end zone to make it 21-8.
Later in the quarter, Burr-Kirven, who had 16 tackles and 77 rushing yards, showed why Lavorato calls him the best high school football player he has coached or seen.
From the Corona del Mar 47, he wove through the defense before breaking free to pull the Gators to within 21-15.
But they would get no closer.
When it ended, Lavorato gathered his players in the end zone and left them a message.
"They are a good football team, there is no doubt about it," Lavorato said of Corona del Mar. "They deserved to win this game. However, you guys played exceptionally. I know I and the rest of the coaches are tremendously proud of what you have done this year and what you did today.
"But sometimes it doesn't always go your way in life."
CORONA DEL MAR 27, SACRED HEART PREP 15
Sacred Heart Prep 0 "15 "0 "0--15
Corona del Mar 21 "0 "3 "3--27
CDM -- St. Geme 5 pass from Napolitano (Brahs kick)
CDM -- Sage 5 pass from Napolitano (Neiger kick)
CDM -- Barbato 58 interception return (Neiger kick)
SHP -- Robinson 37 interception return (Burr-Kirven run)
SHP -- Burr-Kirven 47 run (Tinsley kick)
CDM -- Neiger 31 FG
CDM -- Neiger 35 FG
Records -- Sacred Heart Prep 13-2; Corona del Mar 16-0.