Editor’s note: Late Thursday it was reported that the game was called off due to COVID-19 issues. For more, see Saturday’s News-Press.
It’s been more than 15 months since the last football game was played at San Marcos High’s Warkentin Stadium.
Santa Barbara High took the 2019 playoffs to the final seconds at its cross-town rival’s stadium when it lost a 24-21 heartbreaker to top-ranked Sunny Hills in the CIF-Southern Section Division 8 championship game.
The Dons will finally return to action tonight after a long COVID-19 delay, and it will be at the same stadium where their last season ended. They will play San Marcos at 7 p.m. in the 61st revival of the Big Game.
“Obviously we have some unfinished business,” Santa Barbara coach J.T. Stone said. “We are prepared and ready to go. Our seniors look forward to playing in (their own) stadium especially after last season’s success.”
Peabody Stadium, which was recently reconstructed at a cost of $39 million, will play host to its first football game when Santa Barbara faces Cabrillo on April 2.
Other South County games will feature Fillmore at Dos Pueblos at 6 p.m., St. Bonaventure vs. Bishop Diego at Santa Barbara City College at 7 p.m., and Santa Ynez at Lompoc at 7 p.m.
The Dons return nine all-leaguers from last season’s 11-3 squad. San Marcos, 3-7 in 2019, is rebuilding after its record-setting combination of quarterback Ben Partee and receiver Josh Brown moved on to play for Gannon University in Erie, Pa.
“We had three days just in helmets, and Tuesday was only our 11th day in pads,” Royals coach Jason Fowle said. “They’re in about as good a shape as you could expect after not lifting for a year and doing some conditioning drills and hitting for only two weeks.
“It’s a pretty stark set of demands to go from off the couch to full-contact football. But for sure, our guys are fired up and excited for this game. They’ve been working hard.”
Santa Barbara beat San Marcos 38-12 in last season’s Big Game to trigger an eight-game winning streak that took it to the CIF final.
Plenty of returning Dons benefitted from that experience, beginning with Wisconsin-bound quarterback Deacon Hill. He passed for a school-record 3,102 yards and 33 touchdowns as a junior.
He has two veteran receivers — UC Davis-bound Jake Knecht and Anthony Loza — as well as All-Channel League running back Justin Perez back in the fold.
Hill won Channel League Offensive Player of the Year honors, nose tackle Noach Wood was the Defensive Player of the Year, and two-way back and kicker Ty Montgomery was Utility Player of the Year. Five others return after all-league seasons: Knecht, defensive back Grant Gonzales, and linemen Jonathan Perez, Ryan Holguin and David Ramirez.
Stone is excited about several underclassmen, including wide receivers Trent Williams (“Tremendous athlete that will have an opportunity to play D1 ball”) and Miguel Unzueta (“Young, speedy receiver that can do it all”), running back Nathan Barrios (“strong runner with deceptive speed”), and defensive end Willie Sloan (“High-motor kid that likes to run around the field”).
Although Montgomery picked football over baseball, the overlapping seasons did force Vince Gamberdella to opt for playing catcher at Eddie Mathews Field instead of linebacker at Peabody.
But San Marcos also lost a key player to the national pastime. Junior Joaquin Sandoval, who was projected to succeed Partee at quarterback, chose instead to return as the starting catcher for the Royals’ highly ranked baseball team.
“There’s no ill will or anything like that, it’s just the timing of everything,” Fowle said. “We sure would have a better shot if guys could play both sports, but the way the (COVID) guidelines were written made that really difficult.”
Rhys Morgan, a 6-foot and 190-pound senior who made 19 solo tackles at linebacker last year, will give the Royals a physical presence at quarterback this season.
He will have a big and experienced target at tight end in 6-4 and 225-pound George Tracewell.
Morgan, Tracewell, and offensive linemen Jorge Medina and Korey Becker are the team’s senior leaders. Majied Alfar Diaz, a 6-3 and 265-pound junior, will add a big presence to the line.
Junior receiver and defensive back Lance Bermudes is also stepping up, Fowle said.
Noah Duenas, who made 48 tackles at linebacker last season, will be the featured back in this year’s San Marcos offense.
“Sophomore Patrick Kelly and senior Aaron Broumand will also be carrying the ball,” Fowle said. “It’ll be running back by committee.”
Senior cornerback Andre Castillo, junior receiver-linebacker Benji Rodriguez, and junior linebacker Matt Garcia also figure to play prominent roles for San Marcos.
Fowle plans to keep his offensive strategy simple for tonight’s Big Game:
“Whatever can keep their Channel League Player of the Year off the field, that will be our game plan.”