The biggest thing to hit Ty Montgomery on Thursday night was not one of the Hueneme High football defenders who took a crack at him during his eight-yard touchdown run to start the second quarter.
It was the sensation he felt half-an-hour earlier as he and his Santa Barbara High teammates streamed through a tunnel and emerged onto the field from the guts of the new Peabody Stadium.
“It was this crazy feeling that, ‘This is my first game ever at Santa Barbara High School,’” the senior back said.
It had been more than four years and five months since the Dons — homeless since 2016 — had last made that traditional entrance. This year’s seniors were all in junior high school at the time. Deacon Hill, the star quarterback for this year’s team, was there to see it.
“I was in the eighth grade, I believe, watching Frankie during his sophomore year,” he said, referring to Frankie Gamberdella, his predecessor at quarterback. “They played San Marcos, I think.”
Peabody Stadium, which had been carved out of the gully below Santa Barbara High’s new campus in 1924, had been crumbling apart the last few decades. The press box had long been condemned and removed, and the concrete concourse had become an earthquake disaster in the making.
The Santa Barbara High Foundation recognized the need a decade ago and began to rally the community to rebuild the historic facility. It raised $5 million from more than 800 donors. It got the rest of the funding for the $39 million project from Measure Q2010 bonds, developer fees and state seismic mitigation funds.
The ground-breaking ceremony was finally held on Aug. 23, 2017 — just as Hill, Montgomery and their classmates were starting their freshman year at the school.
“The thought process was, ‘OK, it’s going to get built during my freshman and sophomore years, and at least I’d get to play here two years,’” said Hill, who won Channel League Offensive Player of the Year honors last season. “But that didn’t happen.”
The frustration built up with Montgomery, who was recognized for his offensive, defensive and kicking abilities last season with the league’s Utility Player of the Year Award.
“We were told that we were going to be able to play here during my sophomore year,” he said. “I gave up on that about two years ago. I didn’t even care about this stadium anymore.
“But I am so thankful now. This place is awesome. I wish we would’ve had it last year.”
The Dons won last season’s Channel League championship and advanced all the way to the CIF-Southern Section’s Division 8 championship game. But instead of playing at a palatially new Peabody Stadium, which was supposed to reopen in April of 2019, they had to play at the stadium of their arch-rival, San Marcos. They wound up losing in heart-breaking fashion to top-ranked Sunny Hills, 24-21.
Three months later, the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to all high school sports for an entire year.
“All the seniors moved past it,” Hill said. “We thought our high school days were over. We’d just stick to on-line schooling, and once we were done with it, we were done.
“Most of the seniors started getting jobs. Practice wasn’t a thing for us anymore.”
Football coach J.T. Stone became greatly concerned about how the disconnection from school was affecting the students.
“With all this going on, I was really worried about the kids’ mental health,” he said after Thursday’s game. “So to see them back out here tonight in their element, having fun and smiling … It was a real good feeling for me.”
Stone contacted each of his players after receiving word that an abbreviated football season would begin in March.
“He texted me and went, ‘You guys want to play?’” Hill recalled. “I knew I was coming back. I wouldn’t be able to sit in the stands and watch. I couldn’t do that.”
Montgomery, hearing that there would be only two football games, decided that he’d just play baseball instead since their seasons now overlap.
“But when I realized that we were going to have three or four games, that’s when I came back,” he said. “I’ll go back to baseball right away when football is over.”
The grand opening of Peabody Stadium in 1924 ended in a 30-0 defeat to Huntington Park. But the Dons didn’t waste time scoring on Thursday in a game in which only family members were allowed to attend. Senior Justin Perez set it up by tackling Hueneme’s punter for an 11-yard loss at the Vikings’ own 34-yard line.
On the very next play, Hill ran for the first touchdown at the new Peabody Stadium, sprinting around left end and then cutting inside a block by receiver Anthony Loza.
“I told myself that I’d get the first one in the stadium,” Hill said. “All the pieces fell into place on that play.
“Anthony Loza is one of the best blockers out of all the receivers. He’s got a big body and we like him over the middle. We motioned him over and he picked up the corner. It was just perfect.”
Montgomery’s TD came several minutes later, leading to the 34-12 victory.
When asked if he was determined to get the second score, he replied, “I’ll take any of them.”
All he really wanted was the chance to play at one of the most majestic high school football stadiums in California.
“This place is pretty incredible,” he said. “It’s pretty worth it, to get to play a couple more games with all the seniors.
“It was really looking pretty doubtful that we’d even have this season. I’m pretty happy right now.”
Stone was more pleased about that than the actual victory.
“I’m just happy for the kids,” he said. “Happy to see people in the stands. Happy to hear people. It was good to be back here. It feels good.
“And I’m not just happy for our kids, but also for the Santa Barbara Don community that we’re back here at Peabody. It’s a special place.”