The 60th Annual Big Game was recently moved to the bigger venue of La Playa Stadium, and the stakes for Channel League positioning loom as large as ever.
The little details, however, are what preoccupy the football coaches at both Santa Barbara and San Marcos High Schools for tonight’s conference opener.
“We know it’s a big weekend,” coach J.T. Stone said, noting that his school’s All-Dons Reunion is expected to fill much of SBCC’s 10,000-seat stadium tonight. “But that’s really for the fans and the alumni. Our kids play football, and that’s what they’ve been focused on.
“We used our bye week to look at some things – see what we’re best at and the things we haven’t done so well – and I think that’ll help us moving forward.”
Santa Barbara, with 95-year-old Peabody Stadium still undergoing reconstruction, decided recently to move its “home game” from San Marcos’ Warkentin Stadium to expansive La Playa.
“Honestly, I don’t care where we play it,” Royals’ coach Jason Fowle said. “You can stick us on our own visitors’ sideline, take us to City College … we’re ready to play it wherever.”
San Marcos (2-3), which is also coming off its bye week, does face a big task. Santa Barbara (3-2), which is ranked No. 5 in the CIF-Southern Section’s Division 8, leads the series 35-24 with wins in eight of their last nine meetings. The Royals’ last victory against the Dons came during Stone’s first season at Santa Barbara in 2014.
But Fowle believes last year’s La Playa experience — a 48-0 defeat — has his San Marcos team better prepared for the magnitude of tonight’s contest.
“I think our guys were caught off guard last year by the scale of it all,” he said.
He returns some of last year’s biggest playmakers. Quarterback Ben Partee, a 6-foot-2 and 210-pound senior, leads the county with 1,250 passing yards (94-for-145 and 11 touchdowns). Fellow senior Josh Brown is also a county leader with 40 receptions for 631 yards and 10 TDs.
Fowle has a nice rushing option, as well, in senior Henry Herrera. He’s gained 506 yards and eight TDs in 103 carries behind an improved San Marcos line.
“It all starts with Mr. Partee for them,” Stone said. “He definitely knows what he’s doing within their offensive system and he can easily pick a defense apart.
“But with our schedule, we’ve competed against some of the top kids in the area. From a competitive standpoint, we’re ready to go.”
Santa Barbara, which was ranked No. 1 in Division 8 after winning its first three games, has lost its last two to St. Bonaventure (No. 8 in Division 5) and Pacifica (No. 3 in Division 6).
The Dons have a big presence at quarterback in Deacon Hill, a 6-4 and 225-pound junior who has completed 75-of-138 passes for 1,013 yards and nine TDs. He’s also rushed 20 times for 147 yards and five TDs.
Tonight’s atmosphere at La Playa shouldn’t be a problem for the Wisconsin commit: Hill took advantage of the Dons’ bye week to attend the eighth-ranked Badgers’ 24-15 victory over Northwestern before a crowd of 76,825 at Camp Randall.
“He was in awe,” Stone said. “The wow factor with the beauty of the school and the game atmosphere got him super-excited.”
Hill has plenty of targets, most notably seniors Jackson Gonzales and Dakota Hill, and juniors Jake Knecht and Moki Nacario.
“They stretch you out and play a good horizontal game,” Fowle pointed out. “They make you run and track their athletes, and then they try to take advantage of you vertically.
“They’re also very aggressive and disciplined on defense.”
Gonzales leads the Dons in receiving with 25 catches for 311 yards and a pair of scores. But Stone would like to get more touches for Dakota Hill (nine catches for 130 yards, two TDs).
“He’s a soldier – he plays defense and doesn’t come off the field, and we ask a lot of him,” he said. “He’s going to have a great league season.”
Fowle is asking more Royals to play both ways, as well – even Partee, Brown, and Herrera.
“Our philosophy is that we want to get our best 11 guys out there,” he said.
In other games tonight:
DOS PUEBLOS (0-5) AT CABRILLO (0-5): The Chargers, who have run the gauntlet in a preseason schedule that’s included such highly ranked powers as Pacifica and Righetti, are searching for their first victory in tonight’s game at Huyck Stadium in Lompoc.
“We’re still kind of trying to find out who our leaders and committed players are because things aren’t easy right now,” coach Doug Caines said. “But we’re excited that we don’t have to face any more No. 1 teams from divisions above us.”
DP has several play-making receivers such as Baylor Huyck and Conner Lee, but it’s also completed nine passes to the opposing team this season. Senior Udy Loza leads the Chargers’ rushing game.
Cabrillo got a breakout performance in its last contest from one its own senior running backs. J.J. Lombrana, who had only 16 carries in the Conquistadores’ first four games, rushed for 152 yards and a TD in 29 touches during a 49-21 loss.
BISHOP DIEGO (3-2) AT GRACE BRETHREN (5-0): The Cardinals, who lost their top two quarterbacks to injuries during the first quarter of their last two games, will ask defensive back Jackson Haskell to call the signals in tonight’s 7 o’clock, Camino League opener at Moorpark College.
Haskell did start one game at quarterback last year and he got an extra week of practice at the position with last week’s bye.
“I’ve asked Jackson to keep his head low, especially during the first quarter,” Bishop coach Tom Crawford said with a chuckle. “He has stepped into games before with short notice, and he’s a senior who plays with a lot of poise and manages things well.”
Starting quarterback Buddy Melgoza suffered a season-ending knee injury at Nipomo while backup Michael Luckhurst injured his shoulder the following week against Chicago Hope. But Luckhurst is expected back within the next few weeks. The Cardinals also got injured center Toby Pouso’o back in practice this week.
Bishop, which is receiving votes in the Division 5 poll, has allowed only 7.8 points per game.
“They’ve played pretty well every game,” Crawford said. “The kids really fly around, and we’re going to need that type of effort – and then some – against Grace.
The Lancers are No. 2 in this week’s CIF-SS Division 3 poll and 16th among all state schools in MaxPreps’ computer power rankings.
They return plenty of veterans from last year’s state championship team, including third-year quarterback Mikey Ziele.
They also have a one-two punch at running back in ultra-quick Julien Stokes and 200-pound bruiser Josh Henderson. The two juniors have already combined for 1,284 yards and 21 TDs rushing yards.
“Pick your poison,” Crawford said.
HUENEME (2-4, 0-0) AT CARPINTERIA (1-4, 0-2): The departure of Citrus Coast League schools Malibu and Santa Clara to eight-man football have left tonight’s conference oddity at Carpinteria Memorial Stadium: The Warriors will be playing their third league game while the Vikings will be making their Citrus Coast debut.
Hueneme has a dual-threat at quarterback in junior Ethan Neos, who has passed for 803 yards and eight TDs and rushed for a team-best 162 yards and one score.
Senior Will Collins, who was moved from quarterback to tailback to boost Carpinteria’s running game, has scored seven of Carpinteria’s 10 TDs.
LOMPOC (3-2) AT SANTA YNEZ (2-3): The Pirates limp into Channel League play, having lost its last two games as well as seven starters to injury. Their defense has taken a big hit with the loss of linebacker Dean Tipolt, their leading tackler, and lineman Tyler Germani, their leader in quarterback sacks.
They’ll get no sympathy from the Braves, the defending Channel League champions and No. 10 team in this week’s Division 5 poll. They lost last year’s Channel League Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Cameron Iribarren, to an injury in their season opener.
Lompoc has adjusted well, however, behind freshman quarterback Cavin Ross (64-for-103 passing for 763 yards and eight TDs). Wyoming-bound Ryan Morgan has 20 catches for 330 yards and three scores.
The Braves’ defense also got a boost in last week’s win over St. Joseph with Arizona State-bound Jacob Nunez, a 6-4 and 290-pound offensive tackle, volunteering to play noseguard.
In eight-man football:
Cate (2-2), the No. 5 team in this week’s CIF-SS Division 1 poll, is looking to rebound from last week’s 48-26 loss to No. 3 Flintridge Prep with tonight’s 6:30 p.m. game at Malibu (1-3). A small player turnout prompted the Sharks to leave the Citrus Coast League for the eight-man ranks this season. Laguna Blanca (0-3) will look for its first win tonight at 6 p.m. in Reseda against Sherman Oaks CES (0-3).