Santa Barbara High football coach J.T. Stone still fondly remembers watching a seventh-grade linebacker fly all over the field.
Fast forward five years, the speedster in shoulder pads now mans the middle of the Golden Tornado defense – a unit that has limited their opponents to less than 16 points per game throughout the 12-game regular season and playoff schedule. One win away from reaching the CIF Southern Section Division 8 championship game, Stone credits the tenacity of Johnny Valencia for making it all possible.
“He’s been a part of my program and the thing that caught my eye with Johnny when he was a little kid was that the boy can run,” Stone said. “Johnny is my ideal Mike linebacker. A kid that can cover sideline to sideline, and I think because he’s so versatile and he can run and he’s got great hips. I saw that at an early age and I just knew that I had to get him.
“We don’t get where we’re at without Johnny. He makes too many plays, he’s too athletic. To me, he’s one of the best linebackers around because he’s able to move. Our defense wouldn’t be where they are without this kid.”
Valencia started playing football in the second grade and instantly fell in love with the sport. A Dallas Cowboys fan whose family has a rich history in the Santa Barbara program, the senior defensive signal caller never has to look far for advice.
His dad, Juan, was part of the 1989 Santa Barbara team that made a playoff run of its own. That team was the co-champions of the CIF-Southern Section Division II after tying Muir 7-7 at La Playa Stadium. The CIF left it as a draw.
“I just told him to trust his brothers,” said Juan, a former strong safety, as he took in practice Wednesday afternoon. “When we played back in the day we were all united, so I just told him to trust each other, do your assignment and everybody will take care of their assignments.
“I’ve been really excited for him and really proud,” he added. “The last time they won the Channel League he was like three weeks old… I told him and he wasn’t even aware of that. Thirty years later and they end up winning in the first round.”
Along with his father, Johnny has had several cousins come through the Santa Barbara football program. The younger Valencia was happy to accomplish a feat similar to that of his father.
“It’s a good thing that I did something that my dad did too,” Johnny said. “Especially in my last year. It’s a good way to go out, knowing that we did a lot of good things that a lot of other teams couldn’t. It feels good to go out like that.”
While it has been an amazing run through the postseason, Johnny certainly went through his struggles in the early going. He was the victim of cramps during the teams first few games and was forced to leave the Pacifica game early due to a foot injury.
“It was really frustrating because I couldn’t really do anything,” he explained. “I was on the sideline when I wanted to go out there and play. I just couldn’t do anything about it, which really sucked. It’s my senior year and it took me out of most of the preseason.”
Johnny now spends time in the training room before games. He also started seeing Dr. Mark Brisby and is doing all he can to stay on the field – even if that means having to chug coconut water or use heating pads on his hamstrings.
“He’s working really hard,” Juan said, adding that Johnny still makes time to work out at Gold’s Gym after practice.
Juan still remembers Johnny on the Pop Warner fields, when he would play on the offensive and defensive line.
“He was a little heavier,” Juan said. “He’s always had good footwork and speed for his size. You would notice this chunky little kid and think ‘wow, he can move.’ When he came to the first camp in seventh grade, J.T. saw him and was amazed.”
Each week, the Valencia’s sit down for a film session together. Johnny is constantly surprising his father with his football IQ, often calling out where they play will end up before the ball is snapped.
Much like he did last week in slowing down Palm Desert’s star running back Simon Gaete, Valencia will be relied upon heavily for the Golden Tornado Friday night at Palmdale.
“There’s a bunch of pulling and a lot of misdirection,” Johnny said. “We just have to stay on the lookout. Their guards really know how to get on the second level.”
As he has done throughout his career, the 5-11, 200 pound linebacker will rely on his speed and quickness to make plays. While Valencia is happy that his team has made it this far in the playoffs, he knows there is still work to be done.
“It’s been exciting and all, but the main goal is to get that ring,” he said. “Coach (Ralph) Molina says we haven’t done anything yet, but we want that ring and we want to make history.”
Stone is well aware that defense is what wins championships and he is confident that Valencia will lead the unit when they take on the Falcons.
“In order for us to win this ball game, Johnny and our defense are going to have to play lights out,” Stone said. “As you know, this could be the last game for either team and they’re going to come with everything they can offensively… I think to win a championship, it’s going to start and end there.
“I think Johnny has played well and I think he’s going to rise to the occasion.”