PREP FOOTBALL: THIS DON IS GOING LONG
Deacon Hill was on the outfield grass at Eddie Mathews Baseball Field on Thursday, flinging footballs far and wide to an eager lineup of Santa Barbara High receivers.
Giving cadence was the pounding of nearby construction where the new Peabody Stadium is taking shape.
Hill and Peabody are both big, grand projects that are certain to dazzle.
The University of Wisconsin was so impressed that it offered the 16-year-old quarterback a scholarship even though he’s started just two games of varsity football. The 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior accepted the Badgers’ offer on Tuesday.
“It’s crazy … crazy to be thinking of going off to college,” Hill said. “It’s been one big ride, all the recruiting. Wisconsin recruited me well and I built a lot of relationships with them, but it’s been a lot to take in.
“Coming into high school, I wasn’t expecting to commit this early.”
Dons head coach J.T. Stone, who’s been grooming quarterbacks for a couple of decades, has never had one commit so soon in his high school career.
“But you know when it’s right, and this is the right thing for both,” he said. “My hat’s off to Wisconsin and coach (quarterback coach Joe) Budmayr for recruiting this kid.
“I’ve been around a long time and have seen a lot of recruiting, and they did a phenomenal job with Deacon. They were everything he and his family were looking for.”
The Hills, a close-knit clan of six, are also a family for all seasons.
Deacon’s father, Pe’a, was both a linebacker and offensive lineman at Fresno City College before transferring to BYU-Hawaii to play basketball.
Deacon’s mother, the former Cindy Battistone, starred in basketball for both San Marcos High and BYU’s main campus in Utah, earning induction into Santa Barbara’s Athletic Round Table Hall of Fame in 1999.
His three sisters – Sami, Kodi, and Abbi – were all recruited to play water polo at UCLA, with Sami earning a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic Team three years ago in Rio de Janeiro.
Deacon took the water polo plunge at age 4, starring in no time for the local club. But football had wooed him away by the time he reached junior high school.
“My mom really wanted me to stay with water polo,” Hill said, “but my Dad was all-football.”
Pe’a’s preference was given away at Deacon’s birth when he named him “partially” after Los Angeles Rams’ lineman Deacon Jones.
“So it was kind of split with my parents,” Deacon said. “In the end, my mom was like, ‘It’s your decision … If you want to play football, then football it is.'”
He was used in relief as a sophomore throughout much of last season, entering the game whenever star quarterback Frankie Gamberdella – now bound for Sacramento State – was moved to wide receiver. Gamberdella broke his collar bone during the Dons’ ninth game against Cabrillo, leaving their playoff hopes up to Hill.
He came through brilliantly in his first varsity start, passing for 201 yards and three touchdowns in a 24-7 win over Dos Pueblos that earned Santa Barbara a post-season berth.
Stone knew what he had long before that game, however.
“I started working with him when he was going into fifth grade,” he said. “He came down and he looked like a lineman, but then he threw the ball … and I knew there was something about this kid.
“Once I met Mom and Dad, and understood their backgrounds, I knew this kid was going to be something special.”
Hill’s head is as much an asset as his strong right arm, Stone said.
“He understands defenses, he understands check-downs,” he said. “What I’m really impressed with is his ability to sit in the pocket and find that second and third receiver.
“If you look at his film from last year, you’ll see a lot of the check-downs that were big plays for us when things broke down.”
The Dons made sure to share that film with college recruiters, but Hill knew he still had to prove himself.
“Going into the camps was just another way to prove that I can make all the throws,” he said. “It’s a lot different throwing in person in front of a coach than on tape.”
He led Santa Barbara to a 7-0 record at the recent 7-on-7 Passing Tournament in Atascadero.
“The kids are jazzed up,” Stone said, referring a veteran receiving corps that includes Jackson Gonzales, Dakota Hill, Moki Nacario, and Jake Knecht. “What’s going on with Deacon is a little spark making a lot of the kids hungry and ready to go.”
Hill did have to miss two weeks of the Dons’ summer training while he attended numerous showcases in both Utah and California. Offers from Kansas State and Nevada soon rolled in, as well as contact by such major powers as Notre Dame, Oregon, USC, and Tennessee.
“Oregon wanted to see me at the Cal Lutheran camp,” he said, “and that camp was also where Kansas State asked me to come for a visit.”
He got Wisconsin’s attention in early May when Sam Fisher of the “Throw To Win” training academy in Los Angeles sent Hill’s videotape to the Big 10 school. He included the observation that Hill would be a good fit for the Badgers’ pro-style offense.
Hill visited Madison last Saturday – his first trip ever to the Badger State – before continuing his recruiting trek to Manhattan, Kan.
“It was awesome – just a beautiful place,” he said of his drive around Wisconsin’s campus. “And then I got a chance to sit down with the head coach (Paul Chryst) and the offensive coordinator (Joe Rudolph) and a lot of the coaches.
“It was just good to talk to them and see what they’re all about.”
It was far from Santa Barbara, and yet it felt like home.
“One of the things I told myself when I first started talking to coaches was to see where it felt like family,” Hill said. “I wanted to know if the coaches and players were super-close, and I wanted to see how the players and coaches interacted with each other.”
He glanced over as his current head coach filled in for him at quarterback, handing the ball off to a running back.
“Out here, I’m super-close to coach Stone,” he said. “He’s like my second father, so that kind of relationship with a coach is what I was looking for. I’m close to all these guys, too, so this decision was something personal to me.
“Wisconsin had everything I wanted and needed, and so I decided, ‘Why wait?'”
When your first target is open, after all, there’s no need to check down to another.