Santa Barbara High football has been penalized by a couple of delay-of-game situations, but the Dons have been coping just fine in their first workouts on the clumpy, grass field of a neighboring junior high school.
The reconstruction of their stadium is still an incompletion nearly four years to the day of the last game there on Oct. 7, 2016.
Steve Vizzolini, Director of Facilities and Modernization for the Santa Barbara Unified School District, said “the general contractor’s inability to get the paved subsurface completed to specifications” was the latest snafu to delay a $39 million project that was supposed to be completed more than a year ago.
“The contractor installing the track surface — different than the general contractor — moved on to other jobs,” Vizzolini pointed out. “We just got confirmation that they will be here next week to begin installing the track. It should take them about three weeks.”
But Santa Barbara coach J.T. Stone has been more preoccupied with the availability of his players than Peabody Stadium.
“The kids are really determined to take care of their own unfinished business,” said Stone, referring to their 24-21 defeat to Sunny Hills in last year’s CIF-Southern Section Division 8 championship game. “These kids understand that we’re asking a lot from them — not only the captains, but all the players.
“It’s been a time when I haven’t been able to have my hands on these kids.”
That changed last week after the district gave the green light to conditioning with strict COVID-19 protocols. Although the Dons won’t be allowed to start using footballs and other equipment until next week, Stone was relieved that his players returned in good shape.
“Obviously, it’s something you worry about as a coach,” he said. “I literally talk to the kids every day about this, and they fully understand that this is a moment in time when they have to really buy into it.
“The kids have done a great job of that. They responded to the challenge of COVID and did a lot of workouts on their own.”
By this time last year, Santa Barbara was already halfway through its regular-season schedule and preparing for its Big Game matchup with rival San Marcos. The Dons’ 38-12 victory over the Royals on Oct. 4 triggered an eight-game winning streak that put them in the CIF finals for the first time since 1989.
They have high hopes this year with the return of their three Channel League Players of the Year: quarterback Deacon Hill (Offensive MVP), nose tackle Noach Wood (Defensive MVP), and running back/kicker Ty Montgomery (Utility Player of the Year).
Hill, who committed to Wisconsin last year, spent the offseason trimming his 6-foot-4 frame to 210 pounds.
“He is in the best shape of his life, continuing to work and do all the things a quarterback should do to prepare himself for a season,” Stone said. “He works out with me but he also has a quarterback coach and has been staying busy, three or four times a week.”
Hill, who set a school record by completing 200 of 342 passes for 3,102 yards and 33 TDs last year, also led the Dons with 13 rushing touchdowns. He hopes to be an even bigger two-way threat this season.
“When he dropped that weight, a lot of college coaches came back and tried to offer him,” Stone said. “UCLA has been constantly calling.
“When he was in 10th grade, I told a lot of these schools, ‘We have a kid you need to get on now,’ and I think they really paid the price by not doing that. They missed on a kid in their own backyard.”
The coronavirus pandemic did limit the summer-camp exposure that both Wood and receiver Jake Knecht (26 catches, 600 yards, 5 TDs) had been hoping to get.
“If they get the opportunity to get onto the field, I think Jake and Noach will definitely get to fulfill their dreams of playing college football,” Stone said. “Jake has an offer already from Azusa Pacific, but he needs the opportunity to show he can play at the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) or FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) levels. Noach, too.
“This is huge for them. They need this opportunity.”
The CIF has delayed the start of the season until January, with the Dons scheduled to make their grand entrance at the new Peabody Stadium on Jan. 8 against St. Joseph High.
Moving fall sports to January did create a dilemma for multi-sport athletes. Montgomery was Santa Barbara’s most versatile player last year, rushing for 528 yards and six TDs, catching 13 passes for 141 yards and another TD, and kicking for 63 points which included six field goals. He led the Dons with 105 points, and also made an impact on defense as both a defensive back and linebacker.
But he is also a star on the Dons’ baseball team, which can open its season as early as March 19 — the same day the CIF-SS football playoffs start.
“The kids who are multi-sport athletes, I encourage the heck out of it,” Stone said. “Obviously, decisions will have to be made. We do have a couple of kids who are really good at other sports and have college opportunities in those, and I support them 100%.
“But if a kid has to leave practice on a Tuesday, which is a hitting day, he won’t be able to start that week. We support them but we also have to prepare for a football game.”
Montgomery, Hill and Wood are Santa Barbara’s three senior veterans who made All-Channel League First Team last year. Knecht was a second-team choice, as was classmate Justin Perez, the Dons’ leading rusher with 574 yards and five TDs.
“Justin is going to play a lot of linebacker for us this year, as well,” Stone said.
Also back from last year’s all-league second team are junior defensive back Grant Gonzales, senior lineman David Ramirez, and junior lineman Jonathan Perez. Junior Ryan Holguin, another lineman, received honorable mention. Running back Robert Boyton and receiver Anthony Loza are both in their third seasons on varsity.
But Stone is also excited by the influx of talent from last year’s undefeated junior varsity team.
“We’re putting those pieces into the puzzle because those kids can play,” he said. “Some of these guys could’ve easily played varsity last year but we had so much depth that it made sense for them to get more reps on the JVs.
“As a program, we might be even more athletic at some spots than we were last year.”
He actually moved linebacker Vince Gamberdella up to varsity last year as his sophomore season progressed. Classmate Maki Trimble made a few spot appearances at receiver, as well. Two of the best athletes gaining promotion to the varsity, meanwhile, are junior Trent Williams and sophomore Nate Barrios.
“Trent is my next Division 1 football player,” Stone said. “He’s a D1 athlete who’s going to play receiver and cornerback. Nate is a running back who’s also going to play on both sides of the ball.”
Last year’s run to the CIF finals — and the highly anticipated reopening of a palatial Peabody Stadium — has stirred a turnout of 125 players so far to the Dons’ varsity and frosh-soph workouts.
“It’s encouraging that so many want to play,” Stone said, “and there are more wanting to come out.”
Build a program with a stadium, and they will come.