Alfonso “Poncho” Renteria, junior quarterback of the 1988 Santa Barbara High football team, made a vow at the end of that season:
He would never read another newspaper clipping about himself.
Renteria’s pledge came after the Dons’ legendary “Golden Tornado” had twisted itself into the dust of Peabody Stadium. Their undefeated season had just ended in a 29-21 loss to Beverly Hills in the first round of the CIF-Southern Section playoffs.
“That was probably the best team we’d ever assembled,” Renteria said. “We had a great team, a great season, and had great expectations for the playoffs.
“To lose in the first round of the playoffs was devastating to everybody.”
But a tragic 1988 begat a magical 1989, the last of Santa Barbara’s five CIF football championships.
“It was the biggest motivator of all,” said Renteria, a three-sport star who would set several school passing records before departing Peabody.
The Golden Tornado – the nickname the Dons have adopted for every football postseason since 1929 – is back in the CIF final for the first time in 30 years. Second-seeded Santa Barbara will play No. 1 Sunny Hills for the Division 8 championship on Saturday at 7 p.m. at San Marcos High’s Warkentin Family Stadium.
“It’s an exciting time,” Renteria said on Tuesday. “The buzz is back in town.”
The buzzkill of 1988 was triggered when several of Santa Barbara’s players were declared academically ineligible for the playoffs.
It led to another vow by coach Lito Garcia as the 1989 season got underway.
“We got together at the start of this season and talked about how we wanted guys who would be with us at the end of the year and people who would focus on what we wanted to do all year long,” he said. “This team made that commitment.”
Renteria passed for 2,098 yards that season, completing nearly 64 percent of his attempts with just three interceptions, to earn CIF-SS Division II Player of the Year honors. He would continue on to set several more records at SBCC before earning a scholarship from Cal Poly.
“I don’t take credit for that season at all – I was just part of a great team,” Renteria said. “We had several guys sign with big schools: Chris Sanchez with UCLA, Kerry Lawyer with Boise State, and Simon Banks with UNLV.
“Simon was our breakaway receiver while Garrett Smith was our Steve Largent, possession receiver. We had great linemen and a defense that stepped up in the playoffs.
“And just like this year, our team had great chemistry.”
Sept. 8 – SBHS 34, San Diego Sweetwater 12:
The Dons were itching to redeem 1988, scoring on all five of their first-half possessions. Sanchez ran for three touchdowns from his fullback position, but Sweetwater’s coach was more impressed with the blows he scored on defense:
“That Sanchez is a Division 1 prospect at linebacker,” he said.
Three defensive starters did go down with injuries. Star nose tackle Soloman Major was declared out for the season with a serious ankle injury.
“But we had the type of team where people would step up,” Renteria recalled on Tuesday. “This year’s team is doing that now. These Dons step up and believe in each other.”
Sept. 15 – Lompoc 26, SBHS 7:
The Dons were introduced to future Oakland Raiders star Napoleon Kaufman, who rushed for 163 yards and a touchdown. The Braves’ defense, however, left the biggest impression on Renteria during his last trip to Huyck Stadium.
“We came into that game big-headed, we thought we had it handled, and they came out and smacked us in the mouth,” he said.
Lompoc jarred the football loose from the Dons eight times that night, recovering it five times. The Braves would not lose until the CIF-SS Division VII final. The 1989 Dons, however, would not lose again.
Sept. 22 – SBHS 39, L.A. Kennedy 13:
Renteria had his second perfect passing performance in three games, completing 8-of-8 attempts for 185 yards and three TDs. Two of them went to Banks for 47 and 45 yards, giving the Dons a 32-7 lead at half and no reason to throw again.
“Poncho really ran the option well,” Garcia said after the game. “But I really have to commend the play of linemen Martin Molina and Ed Gonzales.”
Sept. 29 – SBHS 25, Ventura 7:
It was the final game for beloved trainer Santos Escobar, who was retiring after 35 years at the school. The Dons wrote his name on their helmets and pants, and they carried him off the Peabody Stadium field after the final whistle.
“It was kind of an emotional night for us,” Garcia said after the dust had settled.
Renteria’s 11-for-14, 210-yard performance also prompted Garcia to crown him as “one of the best quarterbacks ever” at Santa Barbara. “I’m talking about the mental side of it – audible out, or whatever … When he’s on, we play well.”
Oct. 6 – SBHS 28, Rio Mesa 17:
The road win came with a heavy price: Star defensive tackle Martin Molina, one of the team’s co-captains, was lost for the season to a major knee injury.
One of the Spartans also took an after-the-whistle shot at Renteria with one second left on the clock, triggering what News-Press reporter Dan Shiells described was “a brief but furious brawl which mixed players and fans before coaches, school administrators and police restored order.”
Oct. 13 – SBHS 35, San Marcos 19:
Royals coach Satini Puailoa joined the chorus of praises for Renteria, proclaiming him to be “the finest quarterback we’ve had in this area in a long time” after the Dons posted their fifth-straight Big Game win at San Marcos.
“He’s so calm back there … If they let him throw 20-25 times a game, they’d be unbelievable,” he said.
Renteria threw 13 times, completing nine for 108 yards and a TD. He also ran for 63 yards and two TDs.
“I’m a little new at this running stuff, but I like it,” Renteria said after the game.
Oct. 20 – SBHS 30, Dos Pueblos 20:
The Dons had to score twice in the fourth quarter at Peabody to win a game which saw five lead changes.
Three decades later, Renteria still feels the start of that game: “They came out and smacked me on the very first two plays … They always played us better than San Marcos, for some reason.”
Lawyer, however, played what coach Garcia said was “his best game running the ball (164 yards and a 59-yard TD).”
Kicker George Rios helped save the day with three field goals.
“Thank God that’s over,” Garcia said of the back-to-back rivalry games. “Now we can concentrate on those teams to the south.”
Oct. 28 – SBHS 47, Hueneme 15:
Renteria passed for 156 yards and three TDs, including two more to Banks. But it was the Dons’ defense that sent the Vikings home smarting.
“They hit you in the face as hard as anybody,” Hueneme coach George Machado said.
Nov. 3 – SBHS 34, Buena 0:
Defensive coordinator Joby Nunez devised a plan to have defensive ends Matt Purdy and Terence Hughes terrorize Buena’s record-setting quarterback, Jason Isaacs. The Dons wound up sacking him eight times and limiting him to just 88 passing yards at Ventura’s Larrabee Stadium in a showdown for first place in the Channel League.
“I guess we picked our biggest game to get our first shutout,” Nunez said afterward.
He would not get to see another Dons’ playoff win after that 1989 season. Nunez, who was Santa Barbara High’s Mr. Don of 1966, lost his battle with cancer last January.
“He was a great coach and a great man,” Renteria said. “We really miss him.”
Nov. 10 – SBHS 61, Oxnard 46:
The Dons needed several record-setting performances to overcome the talent-rich Yellowjackets at Oxnard’s Houser Field and gain their 16th–straight Channel League win. Mike Thompson tied a school mark with four TD runs, gaining 164 yards, while Renteria tied another record with five TD passes.
Two of his throws went to Banks, giving the senior receiver 11 on the year to break the county record set in 1952 by Santa Ynez’s Gates Foss.
“That was probably the wildest game I’ve ever played in,” Renteria recalled. “They had a lot of athletes and they were talking the whole game.”
The 1988 season had taught the Dons better of that.
Nov. 17 – SBHS 44, Crescenta Valley 7:
Garcia decided not to break out the old gold jerseys they wore in the 1988 playoff opener, raising $5,000 for new ones. Among the donors were three former Dons who had graduated to the NFL: Los Angeles Rams coaches Ernie Zampese and Marv Goux, and Atlanta Falcons coach Rod Dowhower.
“Things like that meant a lot to me,” said Garcia, a former Don himself from the 1960s. “I wanted to recapture that feeling, give the kids a sense of what the past was like.”
Although Renteria threw his first interception of the season, he completed 10 of his other 13 passes. Rios kicked a 50-yard field goal to tie a record from Santa Barbara High’s first season at Peabody Stadium: a 1924 drop kick by Stan Richardson.
Nov. 24 – SBHS 28, Newbury Park 7:
Soloman Major gave Santa Barbara its Willis Reed moment, limping onto Newbury Park’s field to sack the quarterback in his first appearance since the season opener. Sanchez had three sacks of his own.
The Dons did need two TD returns – on a 44-yard interception by Bryan Stiles and a 63-yard punt return by Lawyer – to take a 14-7 lead at halftime.
“When he gets into the open like that on that punt return, nobody can catch him,” Garcia said of Lawyer.
Dec. 2 – SBHS 28, Canyon 27:
This Division II semifinal, not the final, remains the most talked-about game in Golden Tornado history. Peabody Stadium overflowed with more than 6,000 fans that night.
Santa Barbara, trailing 21-14 in the final minutes, drove from its own 25-yard line when Renteria threw a first-down pass to Smith, scrambled for two more first downs, and then threw a 14-yard pass that Lawyer took to Canyon’s one-yard line with 1:09 to play.
The next 69 seconds would be the longest and most controversial in Santa Barbara history.
Sanchez was ruled down before the end zone on a run in which the game film showed him to be two feet beyond the goal line. The Cowboys stuffed two more plays, and then Renteria apparently fumbled the snap on fourth down, prompting their fans to rush the field in celebration.
The officials, however, ruled that Canyon had been off-sides. They cleared the field and put four seconds back on the clock to replay the down.
“What most people didn’t know was that their nose guard had been slapping at the ball the whole game,” Renteria said. “We kept telling the refs and they finally noticed it on that play.”
Confusion reigned further on the replay after the clock was restarted while Santa Barbara broke its huddle. Renteria had to rush his pitchout to Thompson, and he was stopped short of the goal line – prompting another field-rushing celebration by Canyon’s fans.
CIF rules state, however, that the clock should not restart after a penalty until the offensive team gets set.
“The officials came over to tell me they made a mistake even before I came to them,” Garcia said.
The field was cleared again, the four seconds were put back on the clock, and the third time was the charm for Santa Barbara: Renteria stepped back and calmly threw a touchdown pass to tight end Derek Elbert.
“You really have to give the credit to Poncho and our offensive line,” Garcia said afterward. “They handled some real adversity in the last seconds and kept their poise.”
Rios’ conversion kick sent the game into overtime.
The CIF’s overtime rules at the time had both teams take turns from their opponent’s 10-yard line. The Tornado scored first on a 15-yard pass from Renteria to Banks. The reliable Rios kicked the extra point.
Canyon also scored on a fourth-down pass, but its kicker missed wide left – this time sending Santa Barbara’s fans onto the field in celebration.
“When I went to play at Cal Poly, one of the guys on the team was from Canyon,” Renteria said, “and he was always calling us the ‘five-play Dons.’”
Canyon coach Harry Welch, incensed by the turn of events and several taunting fans, had other names for them that couldn’t be printed in the next-day’s newspaper. He wreaked havoc in Santa Barbara’s field house, destroying a trophy case and a water fountain while also damaging a door.
The Golden Tornado players were herded through a different door into a team room inside the same fieldhouse.
“We kept the doors shut until they calmed down,” Renteria recalled.
Dec. 9 – SBHS 7, Muir 7:
Renteria threw a 27-yard scoring pass to Banks in the first quarter, giving him a school-record 29 TDs for the season, but Muir blitzed him during the rest of the Division II championship game at La Playa Stadium.
“He was under tremendous pressure from their pass rush all night,” Garcia said.
The Golden Tornado defense returned the favor, however.
Muir was driving deep into Santa Barbara territory at the end of the game when Sanchez blitzed, forcing its quarterback to rush a throw that Greg Araujo intercepted at his own 5-yard line to preserve the tie.
“He’s done it all year for us,” Nunez said of Sanchez’s blitz. “I’d be crazy not to have sent him on that last play.”
Renteria and his teammates were “dismayed” when they learned that there would be no overtime and that the two teams would be declared co-champions.
“We were ready to go,” he said. “We thought it’d be just like the semifinals.
“But we’ve come to accept it over time. Back then, we were in Division 2, and it was hard to get that far at that level. We’ll take it now.”
He still gets together with coach Garcia for breakfast about once a month. They’ll be joined by such other Don greats as Jaime Melgoza and Rudy Ybarra. But they don’t just talk about the old days. There are some new days to get excited about.
“My son (Abel) is an eighth-grader, and he’s been a quarterback in J.T.’s even-on-seven program for years,” Renteria said, referring to Santa Barbara coach J.T. Stone. “Abel’s principal at Santa Barbara Junior High is Lito’s son.
“Three of my old teammates – Frank Holguin and Juan Valencia and Armando Solano – have kids playing for the Dons right now.”
What goes around comes around in a Golden Tornado, even if it does take 30 years.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org