By Joe Davidson
When it was time for the Pack of Pacers - Grant High School's football contingent set for the college scholarship challenge - to take a seat this morning in a standing-room only room near the front office, there was a sudden problem.
No Pacers. The players were nowhere to be found.
"They're walking the school grounds," a parent informed above the buzz of family, community, faculty, coaches, students and media.
In other words, a victory lap before the official moment of signing - their last moment in the spotlight as high school performers.
Before long, the Pacers filed in, filling out their sweat tops like the regal blockers and tacklers that they are. They took a seat in front of portrait shots, equal parts humbled, proud, determined to do their school, families and region proud.
National Signing Day has become something of a annual treasure in Del Paso Heights, with coach Mike Alberghini having at least one - generally many more - sign a letter of intent in each of his 20 seasons as head coach.
Today, it was an impressive lot, captured by a throng of family and media:
* Puka Lopa - An explosive and relentless defensive end/linebacker who had 21 sacks is headed to Cal.
* Vei Moala - The Bee's co-Defensive Player of the Year with buddy Lopa, the All-American defensive tackle is also off to Cal.
* James Sample - A two-time Bee All-Metro pick and a prep All-American safety will suit up for Washington.
* Darryl Paulo - The Pacers leading tackler with 158 stops who caught winning touchdowns as a tight will head to Washington State.
* Filipo Sau - Enormous left tackle who is as shy as he is dominant is off to Snow College in Utah, a launching pad for Division I scholarship players.
Grant very well may have more players sign but these are the ones who inked their paper work on the first day athletes can formally accept scholarships. These are binding contracts and Alberghini immediate faxed them to the schools as they wanted them by 8:30 this morning.
Expect a lot of tailgating in Berkeley following today's big moment. Parents said that their families share a close bond, affection for football, their kids and food. For Lopa and Moala in particular, the two families that feel like one will continue their union in the Pacific-10 Conference.
"For families like us, this is everything, and we're so proud," said Tiamu Lopa, father of Puka. "We can't wait to watch them, to bring the barbeque down there."
"It's great day for these kids, this school and this community," Alberghini said. "This is their moment. In my 42 years of coaching here, I can't think of a better senior group of leaders who had such great character, how they respected their school, how they were leaders, how they were players.
"They were all 3.0 students, and as students and as players, they have been stellar. In great victories and in our toughest defeats, these kids stood tall. This is a very proud moment."