Sacred Heart Prep’s Shay O’Kelly grew up idolizing Ben Burr-Kirven. Now, he’s playing like him

ATHERTON — Some of Shay O’Kelly’s best memories from growing up were attending Sacred Heart Prep football games.

He’d watch his older brothers play for the Gators, dreaming of the day when he’d get a chance to do the same thing.

But when it came to how he wanted to play football, it really was former Sacred Heart Prep star Ben Burr-Kirven — the only two-time San Jose Mercury News player of the year and the Bay Area News Group’s defensive player of the 2010s decade — that showed O’Kelly the player he wanted to be.

“I remember how dominant he was on defense — I mean, I think every single play, he’d get either a tackle or an incomplete pass,” O’Kelly said. “I think that has a lot to do with who I wanted to be as a player. I watched his film so many times.

“He’s someone that I try to emulate my game after and someone who’s had a ton of success here that I’m trying to emulate as well.”

As Sacred Heart Prep prepares to start its Central Coast Section Division I playoff run with a trip to The Pit and Salinas High School on Friday night, it will be leaning heavily on O’Kelly and a defense that’s led the team to one of the best regular seasons in program history.

It’s a season like the Gators had when Burr-Kirven was around from 2012-2014. And, when you look at the numbers for both Burr-Kirven back then and for O’Kelly now, the similarity between the two is startling.

First, there are the statistical measures we can see on MaxPreps, where O’Kelly’s production over his three years (29 games) is a stunningly close mirror of Burr-Kirven’s (35 games).

When you combine tackles for a loss (TFL) and sacks, O’Kelly has 29 (23 TFL, 6 sacks). Burr-Kirven had 29.5 (14 TFL, 15.5 sacks). And when you take their tackles and average them on a per-game basis?

Burr-Kirven had 10.9. O’Kelly is currently at 11.0.

Of course, what made Burr-Kirven even more special was that he played both ways and was a force on offense, too. It’s why Frank Rodriguez, the recently retired athletic director at Sacred Heart Prep, calls Burr-Kirven “the best high school football player I’ve ever seen.”

But for O’Kelly to even enter the conversation at the “Burr-Kirven level” in Atherton is the ultimate compliment that any Gator can give or get.

“I never thought I would ever see anybody who could replicate what Ben was doing out on the field,” Rodriguez said. “And in my time here, Shay is the one who comes the closest … Shay is focused on the defensive end, but he has meant as much to this program, and to this team especially, as Ben did to his teams in years past.”

Sacred Heart Prep coach Mark Grieb can attest to that. And the former San Jose SaberCat quarterback can feel a kinship with his star linebacker’s football obsession.

“The thing I love about Shay the most is his passion for the game. He loves it and he puts his heart and soul into everything football-related,” Grieb said before telling a story about overhearing O’Kelly talking with a teammate about how he determines what move he uses while pass-rushing. “It was cool to hear that as a coach because he’s a kid who just is like a sponge to learn the game.

“As a person who loves football and has been a huge part of my life, it’s just so fun to see him be the same way.”

In their run from CCS Division IV to a state championship last year, O’Kelly, among stats reported to MaxPreps, tied for the California state lead in total tackles with 191 in 15 games.

He’s continued to be a defensive force this season, even with Sacred Heart Prep’s opponents starting to scheme around him. He’s currently fourth in the CCS with 125 tackles (according to MaxPreps). And it’s not like that’s against a soft schedule, either — all 10 opponents the Gators have faced so far have been in CCS “A” league. The 11th, Salinas, comes from an “A” league, too.

“The two back-to-back years, I’d measure that against any linebacker on the peninsula,” Rodriguez said.

That success is partially why O’Kelly believes he’s a Pac-12-level player at the next-level and is currently in discussion with a few schools in the conference. He said he has a few preferred walk-on offers but wants to wait things out.

“Ultimately, I’m trying to push for a scholarship out of high school,” O’Kelly said.

It’s a familiar mindset to those around Atherton, as Burr-Kirven was in the exact same position during his senior year. Ultimately, Washington came in right before Signing Day and offered Burr-Kirven a scholarship, something that O’Kelly says he’s “praying” can happen for him.

The result for the Huskies with Burr-Kirven? He started for two years, won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 and was drafted in the fifth round by the Seahawks in 2019, where he played for two years.

Both players would be considered undersized — Burr-Kirven was listed at 6-0, 200 pounds on his MaxPreps page out of high school and O’Kelly is not much bigger at 6-1, 210. But Grieb says the skills O’Kelly does have can’t be taught and has proven it on the field.

“I don’t think he fits the mold in terms of the size that schools are looking for. But in terms of play? If you put the film on, you watch him play, he plays the position so well,” Grieb said. “He just diagnoses what’s going on. He makes his reads so fast and he’s coming downhill that it’s hard to block him. He gets there before the pullers get there.”

Fellow senior Andrew Latu added, “Shay is a dog. He hawks down the ball like it’s nothing. He just has a natural instinct for the ball. That kid is just super talented.”

With so many seniors on the defensive side of the ball around O’Kelly, the Gators have only allowed 82 points in their 10 games this season en route to their 9-1 record and undefeated SCVAL/PAL Bay Division crown. It’s why O’Kelly isn’t afraid to make some bold proclamations about their unit.

“I think our defense is one of the best in the Bay, if not the best in the Bay,” O’Kelly said. “We’ve just got to keep riding it.”

They’ll get their first chance to ride it at Salinas on Friday night. If they can pull off the victory for Win No. 10 on the season? A showdown with Northern California’s best team, Serra, likely awaits.

When Burr-Kirven was a senior, the Gators knocked out then-perennial WCAL power Bellarmine in the Open Division for a CCS title. What would getting the chance to do the same mean to O’Kelly in his senior year?

“I mean, that’d mean everything,” O’Kelly said. “Everyone’s careers here are marked by wins and losses, whether you like it or not. I was looking back numerous times over the years that Ben played there and all three years he was playing, super successful teams. And he was able to produce at the highest level — he beat Bellarmine in the Open Division playoffs.

“So yeah, that’s something we’re trying to do.”

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