It all comes down to this.
The Santa Barbara High football team will put its title hopes on the line tonight, as the Golden Tornado square off against Sunny Hills in a battle of CIF-SS Division 8 heavyweights. The Lancers enter the game as the top-ranked team in the Division 8 rankings, with Santa Barbara ranked No. 2, according to MaxPreps.
While Santa Barbara (11-2) has been dominant throughout the playoffs, outscoring its opponents 123-47 in the first three rounds, Sunny Hills (11-2) has been clutch down the stretch.
The Lancers’ Jun Ahn scored on a 9-yard touchdown run with 31 seconds left in the game against Tustin in the opening round. They had trailed 14-0 early in the third quarter. Last week against Trabuco Hills, Sunny Hills scored 14 points in the fourth quarter, including a 47-yard TD catch by junior Vincent Silva with 3:10 to go, to help the Lancers advance. Silva had four receptions for 202 yards and 3 TDs against the Mustangs.
Entering the season, Sunny Hills had not won a playoff game since 1996 and last played in a CIF championship in 1992. Head coach Pete Karavedas took over the program in 2015 and the team has made the playoffs every season.
Leading the Lancers on offense is Ahn, a senior running back who has rushed for 1,690 yards and 26 TDs this season. Senior Wilson Cal has a team-high 927 receiving yards on 62 catches and 5 TDs. Senior quarterback Luke Duxbury is a three-year starter and holds every school passing record. Duxbury has thrown for 1898 yards and 20 TDs this season and as a junior threw for 2,302 yards and 24 TDs.
On defense, Sunny Hills is led by Carson Irons, who has 158 total tackles this season. Vincent Silva is second on the team with 93 total tackles. Senior Jake Massar has a team-high eight sacks and fellow senior Jonathan Lee has a team best two interceptions.
Everyone in town is well aware of the history behind Santa Barbara’s playoff run. Prior to their win over Gahr in the opening round, the team had not won a playoff game since 1989. That team went on to tie the CIF final, the last time Santa Barbara “won” a CIF title. The team has a record of 5-7 in previous championship games.
“You’ve got all the local high schools around, but this is Santa Barbara High School,” said coach J.T. Stone. “It’s one of the oldest high schools around and there’s a lot of prestige here and a lot of tradition. Santa Barbara High is connected to a lot of people in this county and, as you can see, when we travel there’s Dons everywhere.”
A large contingent of Santa Barbara supporters have made the long trips to Palm Desert and Palmdale, respectively, and Stone expects a capacity crowd tonight at San Marcos’ Warkentin Stadium.
“It’s going to be a packed house,” he said. “We’ve got Dons coming from all over. We’ve got a great support group of people who have been supporting us from day one and everyone else who is coming to support us now.
“It’s a good thing and we’re excited.”
The lead up to tonight’s game has been anything but conventional for Santa Barbara. The Cave Fire erupted Monday afternoon and the heavy smoke in the area caused the team to cancel its practice on Tuesday. They took the field Wednesday night at San Marcos High and made a concerted effort to prepare for the elements. With a chance of rain for tonight’s 7 p.m. contest, Stone and his staff sprayed down the footballs with water while Deacon Hill threw to his teammates in attempts to prepare for the potential precipitation.
“The key really is just getting through the distractions – the fire, the rain, all the elements that have been thrown at us thus far,” Stone said Wednesday night. “Things that are just out of our control.
“I really think if we have a great two days of practice and we win at practice, we’re going to put ourselves in a position to compete Saturday night.”
Santa Barbara’s offense will be led by a familiar cast of characters. Quarterback Deacon Hill, who threw for over 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns in the regular season, has completed 42 of his 59 pass attempts in the playoffs for 739 yards and 12 TD passes. Juniors Ty Montgomery and Justin Perez will be relied upon in the running game. At receiver, the Golden Tornado have a four-headed monster – with Dakota Hill, Jackson Gonzales, Moki Nacario and Jake Knecht. The team has scored 17 touchdowns on its 26 offensive possessions in the playoffs, punting only four times. The only turnover was a turnover on downs against Gahr deep in the Gladiators own end, which set up a safety on the ensuing play.
The Lancers will look to establish the run with their Wing-T offensive attack, though it’s an offense that Santa Barbara had success against in the past.
“We play fairly well against the Wing-T,” Stone said. “(Defensive Coordinator) Ralph (Molina) does a good job of putting the scheme together and we’ve played some teams and we’vebeen in this type of situation.
“It’s going to come down to running and tackling,” he said. “Our defense will be ready to and they’ve got a great game plan. They’ve got a great offense, but we’ve got a great defense and they’ve been playing well all year. I expect them to play well on Saturday.”
Seniors Johnny Valencia and Charlie Figueroa will be joined by defensive linemen Noach Wood, Joshua Rosales and David Ramirez as they attempt to slow down the Lancers rushing attack, which has averaged 270 yards a game this season.
With so much on the line for both teams, Stone said that every play will be crucial.
“Every play matters,” he said. “I think our kids understand that and they definitely saw a really good Sunny Hills team and they also saw teams that actually put it to them. Everybody is vulnerable – even us. It’s just who is going to finish strong and who is going to give everything they’ve got. We are definitely going to be ready.”