PALMDALE — What started as a dream may soon become a reality.
The Santa Barbara High football team has been talking about winning a CIF championship since long before they put on helmets and shoulder pads. They will get their shot next week, as the Golden Tornado defeated Palmdale 37-15 Friday night at Riewer Stadium.
“It’s crazy,” said quarterback Deacon Hill, shortly after sharing an embrace with his father. “We’ve been dreaming about this moment since the spring during training. It’s great, especially for the seniors to get them right where they want to be.”
Hill continued his spectacular postseason play, throwing for 206 yards and 4 TDs while adding 58 yards on the ground. Ahead by 15 late in the fourth, Hill took it upon himself to make the plays when it mattered most. His 18-yard run with just over 5 minutes to go helped Santa Barbara chew up some clock before he found Dakota Hill (no relation) with a screen pass and the receiver did the rest — taking it 15-yards for a score to put the Falcons away for good.
“When the game is on the line, I want to put the ball in my hands,” Deacon said. “I want to be that guy who helps the team and put the team on my back. But I can’t do it without the line and I can’t do it without the receivers working downfield. My running game is really just because of everybody else.”
Santa Barbara (11-2) got off to a fast start — outgaining Palmdale 128 to 19 in the first quarter. The Golden Tornado had a 13-play, 85-yard drive to open the game, setting the tone for the rest of the night.
“We told our guys the one thing about football is that if you come out and you punch somebody in the mouth, they have to react,” said Santa Barbara coach J.T. Stone. “They’re going to want to play or they’re not, and they chose not to play. We told them to keep hitting them and we did that.”
The first drive was capped off with an eight-yard touchdown run by Ty Montgomery and Santa Barbara was just getting started.
Hill found Jake Knecht for a 19-yard TD to make it 14-0. Following a Palmdale punt, Deacon and Dakota hooked up for a 54-yard touchdown with 11:43 to go in the first half to make it 21-0.
With just over four minutes left in the half, an interception by Dakota gave the ball back to Santa Barabra. Facing a 3rd and 20 at their own 45, Deacon found Moki Nacario streaking down the Golden Tornado sideline for a 45-yard touchdown to make it 27-0 at the half.
Palmdale started the second half with the football but the Santa Barbara defense refused to let up. Facing a fourth-and-3 play, the Falcons (12-2) tried a fake punt as quarterback Marcus Hearn caught a direct snap and attempted a deep pass down the middle. Nacario, who was lined up to return the punt, jumped in front and came away with the interception near midfield.
Montgomery, who missed a 44-yard field goal on the ensuing drive, bounced back to make a 28-yard attempt with 3:41 left in the third quarter to make it 30-0.
Hearn had a tough night, completing only three of his 11 pass attempts for 13 yards with two interceptions. Santa Barbara limited him to 28 rushing yards before he was replaced by sophomore Nathaniel Mealancon late in the third.
Mealancon sparked the Falcons offense, ripping off a 77-yard run before scoring on a two-yard QB sneak on 4th and goal to get his team on the board.
The Falcons recovered the ensuing onside kick and scored three plays later to make it 30-15 after the successful two-point conversion.
Santa Barbara was forced to punt the ball away on its next possession, though their defense again answered the call.
Junior David Ramirez had a big sack on a 3rd and 10 play with 7:25 left the game to force another punt.
“David doesn’t get a lot of credit but he’s come a long way,” said senior Joshua Rosales. “He has enormous potential and he’s someone to look out for next year too.”
Rosales was overcome with emotion after the game, taking a knee and staring at the ground as tears formed in his eyes.
“A lot of emotions,” the 6-foot-2, 230 pound defensive end admitted. “No team has made it out of the first round in 30 years, let alone a championship game. It’s obviously a really good feeling and we want to bring that championship back.”
With the win, Santa Barbara will host Sunny Hills — the top ranked team in the CIF-SS Division 8 rankings. The Lancers defeated Trabuco Hills 31-27 Friday night. Game details are expected to be finalized today, with the matchup either Friday or Saturday at San Marcos High.
Santa Barbara was able to overcome a scary moment in the early going, when senior Jackson Gonzales went down hard and slammed his head on the turf just two minutes into the game. He remained down for several minutes before walking off the field under his own power. Stone brought his team together and told them to play the rest of the game for their senior leader.
“He means so much to us and we owe it to him,” Stone said. “It sort of sparked our kids because we play for each other. We’ve got to see him again next week. He deserves to play in the championship game so we had to get him there.”
With Gonzales sidelined, junior Anthony Loza stepped in and made a pair of crucial receptions to keep the offense rolling. Even without the senior wideout, the skill position players on offense were simply too much for the Falcons to contain.
“We’ve got four great, fast receivers that all come together and make great plays,” said Knecht. “We’ve got great running backs, a great O-line, and a great quarterback — we’ve really got everything we need…. Except for that ring.”
They’ll get their shot at jewelry next week in what should be a spectacular atmosphere at Warkentin Stadium.