With 38 seconds to go Santa Barbara found itself 19-yards away from winning its first CIF championship since 1989, but an interception by Sunny Hills Wilson Cal in the end zone put an end to the dream season for the Golden Tornado.
The Lancers improbable 24-21 victory at San Marcos’ High Warkentin Stadium left the Santa Barbara players stunned. Following the interception, several Santa Barbara players were slow to leave the field. Many of them dropped down to a knee and some threw their helmets to the turf in disgust as they tried to fathom what transpired.
“I wouldn’t take anything back from this game,” said Santa Barbara coach J.T. Stone. “Like I told them, every play is valuable and it showed tonight.”
As were many of the Golden Tornado players, quarterback Deacon Hill was beside himself. After hugging his family and fighting back tears, he addressed his final throw of his junior season.
“It’s like nothing you could ever feel,” he said. “Going into the battle, going all season long and then just not finishing with your brothers – that’s the hardest part.
“We took a shot and it seemed like Jake (Knecht) had a step on him and (the defender) just recovered,” Hill said. “I take that one to heart… it’s going to hurt for a while, but we’ll be back.”
Sunny Hills (12-2) drove 18 plays on its opening drive, though a goal line stand by Santa Barbara Johnny Valencia forced the Lancers to settle for a field goal to make it 3-0. The long drive chewed up nearly eight minutes. Santa Barbara (11-3) came back with a 15 play drive of its own, which culminated with a one-yard TD by Hill to make it 7-3 with 10:26 left in the first half.
Santa Barbara’s defense settled in and forced a three-and-out and a bad snap on the punt gave Santa Barbara a short field as they took over at the Lancers 41 yard line.
The Golden Tornado scored six plays later, when Deacon found Dakota over the middle for a 20-yard TD to make it 14-3 — a score that would hold until the half.
Santa Barbara, which won the coin toss to open the game and elected to defer for just the second time this season, opened the second half with the ball. On a 3rd and 10 with 10:20 left in the third, Hill attempted a screen pass over the middle that was intercepted by the Lancers Kenny Lathrum.
Two minutes later, Sunny Hills scored on a 9-yard run by Vincent Silva to make it 14-10.
“The pick sort of game them that spark,” Stone said. “If we didn’t throw that then we would have had to punt and they would have had the whole field to drive. With a good team like that that runs the football, it just hurt us.
“I think if we would have punted the ball it would have been a different ball game.”
Faced with a 3rd and goal from the 5 with 7:26 left in the game, Luke Duxbury found Silva in the end zone to give the Lancers the lead, 17-14.
Santa Barbara answered back, as Ty Montgomery ripped off runs of 5, 10 and 7 before Hill called his own number, keeping a zone read and scoring on a 29-yard run with 4:42 left to give his team a 21-17 lead.
Sunny Hills proceeded to convert a 4th and 2 play with 2:20 left in the game, when Brandon Roberts got just enough on an inside run. On the very next play, Duxbury found Silva for a 58-yard touchdown to give the Lancers the lead for good.
A solid kick return by Jackson Gonzales – who was held off special teams in the first half after suffering a head injury last week against Palmdale – set up the Golden Tornado at their own 45. Hill completed passes of 9, 22 and 9 to get into scoring range before Cal came away with the interception.
“We were playing man-to-man, so it was just me and him,” Cal said as he celebrated with his teammate. “I had to make a play to win this championship for my brothers because we’ve been grinding for this since January. Nothing means more to use to get this ring. I don’t even know how to describe it.
Silva was equally in shock. The running back had four catches for 202 yards and 3 TDs a week ago in Sunny Hills comeback win over Trabuco Hills, only to follow it up with 138 total yards and all three touchdowns Saturday night.
“We’ve come so far and this team – I just love them so much. We’ve said since week one that we were going to win 14 games. We didn’t win all1 4, but we played 14 and all that matters is we won that 14th game,” Silva said.
Coach Peter Karavedas, who took over the program in 2015, said he has been preaching to his team all season to love each other when things get tough.
“If you’re team is really a family, if they love each other and are selfless and care about each other – that’s really the foundation of your team,” he said. “We’ve come from behind in three of our four playoff games because our kids love each other.
“It feels magical in some ways.”
Hill finished 18-31 for 219 yards, a TD and two interceptions. He had 48 rushing yards on 12 carries and a TD. Moki Nacario finished with six receptions for 80 yards, while Dakota Hill had five receptions for 50 yards and a TD.
For the Lancers, Duxbury completed eight of his 13 attempts for 96 yards and 2 TDs, while completing his final five pass attempts. Jun Ahn had 133 rushing yards on 29 carries.
While he addressed his team postgame, Stone called out the seniors who helped lay the foundation for the program moving forward.
“Obviously they didn’t get a CIF championship, but their hard work and their dedication to this program will not go unnoticed,” he said. “My senior group, all 36 of ‘em, have just been ambassadors for the program.”
Stone said he won’t judge his quarterback based on the final throw.
“He threw a pick at the end of the game and he was trying to make a play,” Stone said. “There’s nothing you can do about that. If you give him the ball again, I guarantee he’ll make that touchdown.”
He addressed the late-game play calling.
“We were trying to score,” he said. “They doubled Dakota and if Deacon puts the ball out their a little further, we have a chance to get that. It wasn’t the best pass, but his decision to throw that ball was right.
“I felt that we had enough time to kick the field goal there, but we were trying to score – trying to win the game.”