One week after snapping its long playoff drought, the Santa Barbara High football team will look to extend the playoff misfortune of Palm Desert.
The Golden Tornado (9-2, 5-0 in Channel League), No. 2 in the CIF Southern Section Division 8 rankings, got the playoff monkey off their backs with a 44-0 win over Gahr last week. The players were elated following the victory, breaking the final huddle with the chant of “What Curse” after the game.
The Aztecs (8-3, 5-0 in the Desert Empire League), who enter tonight’s game as the No. 6 team in Division 8, have lost in the second round of the playoffs the past two seasons. Palm Desert defeated Temescal Canyon 34-14 a week ago.
The Aztecs are led on offense by senior running back Simon Gaete. The 5-9, 190 pound back is the team’s single-season rushing record holder with 2,328 yards. He is tied for the single-season rushing touchdown record with 28.
Their quarterback, Zavier Hill-Kemp, is second on the team with 700 rushing yards.
“We’ve just got to get ready to play physical football this week,” said Santa Barbara coach J.T. Stone.
Palm Desert has some big bodies along the offensive front, averaging 6-3, 265 pounds across the board.
Santa Barbara defensive coordinator Ralph Molina said the team will rely on its speed and quickness to stop the run, while also mixing things up in the front seven. The five-man rotation at linebacker – with Johnny Valencia, Charlie Figueroa, Steven Lara, Ty Montgomery and Justin Perez – will be relied upon heavily.
“If we do what we’re supposed to do up front and with our linebackers, we should be okay,” Stone said.
The Golden Tornado have faced talented running backs this season, such as Pacifica’s Malik Sherrod and Lompoc’s Leondre Coleman. Stone is confident that those experiences will pay dividends for tonight’s 7 p.m. matchup.
“(Gaete) runs to the whistle,” he said. “He might not be as athletic as the guys we’ve faced this season. He’s got some big guys to run behind. It’s a challenge for our defense and I think our defense has stepped up all year, so they’re looking forward to that challenge.”
Santa Barbara has not allowed an offensive touchdown since their 27-21 victory over Lompoc Oct. 18.
“I think we’re peaking at the right time and we’re playing with confidence,” Molina said. “They’re excited and I’m excited for them. They’re not looking to next week. They’ve been really focused.”
On the offensive side, junior quarterback Deacon Hill will have a full complement of receivers at his disposal. Seniors Dakota Hill, Jackson Gonzales and Moki Nacario will be joined by junior Jake Knecht, who missed several regular season games dealing with a hamstring injury.
Hill led the county in passing with 2,098 yards and 22 touchdowns. He was efficient against the Gladiators last week, completing 10 of his 14 attempts for 202 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Santa Barbara has also been able to lean on its running game of late, with Perez and Montgomery providing a potent one-two punch behind an offensive line that has improved each week. The duo combined for more than 160 rushing yards against Gahr, doing most of their damage running behind seniors Chase Kamin and Nick Baizan.
As is the case with most games, establishing the run on offense and stopping the run on defense will be key tonight.
Santa Barbara, who has been playing on the road all season due to the ongoing construction of Peabody Stadium, will be traveling again next week if they are able to get past the Aztecs. Santa Barbara lost both coin tosses with Palmdale and Aliso Niguel.
EIGHT-MAN DIVISION 1: Cate (6-3) at Flintridge Prep (8-2)
The Rams will look to avenge their 48-26 loss to the Rebels on Sept. 28.
Cate will welcome back sophomore quarterback Will Bouma, who has missed the past three games after suffering a concussion. Junior Will Deardorff figures to play a big role in the offensive game plan, moving back to his normal position of wide receiver after filling in for Bouma at quarterback.
Flintridge Prep, which ranks as the No. 4 eight-man team in the state, are expected to rely on quarterback Max Gitlin and wide receivers Zach Kim and Ben Grable.
Tonight’s kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.