J.T. Stone has been coaching a homeless football program for the last three years, but the former vagabond guru for fledgling quarterbacks has never felt more at home than at Santa Barbara High School.
The Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table named him as the area’s High School Coach of the Year on this week after he guided the Dons to their first CIF-Southern Section football final in three decades last fall.
“We had a team in which every piece of the puzzle fit right into place,” Stone said.
He’s been fenced out of Peabody Stadium for three of his six seasons as Santa Barbara’s head coach. The Dons have been forced to play on the fields of rival high schools as well as at Santa Barbara City College ever since ground was broken to reconstruct their own 96-year-old stadium in August of 2017. District officials say the $39 million project is expected to be done by June 30.
“Obviously, we would’ve loved to have played at home — it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to do that,” Stone said. “Last year would’ve been a great opportunity to reopen Peabody Stadium, with the great team we had.
“But what I told the kids before last season was this: If you love playing football, you really don’t care where you play it.”
He played his own high school football at cross-town Dos Pueblos, graduating in 1995 after setting the Santa Barbara County passing record for a regular season (2,479 yards). That mark ranked third all-time when playoff games were included.
Stone has been tutoring quarterbacks in the Big Picture Athletics program for nearly two decades. He also served as an assistant coach at DP, Righetti, and St. Joseph High Schools before becoming the Dons’ head coach in 2014. He’s now the longest-tenured football coach at Santa Barbara High since Craig Moropoulos held the reins from 1999 to 2005.
“I was at St. Joe’s but was also working with some area kids in my training program when an opening came up at Santa Barbara High,” Stone recalled. “I reached out to (then-principal John) Becchio to see what was available and it just worked out for me.
“You know, things happen for a reason.”
He’s compiled a six-year record of 37-29 overall and 16-10 in the Channel League. The Dons finished in a three-way tie for the Channel League championship in 2016, sharing the crown with DP and Ventura. This year’s team went 11-3 overall and 5-0 to win its first outright conference championship since 2001.
The launching pad for this season, Stone said, actually came during the first round of the CIF-SS playoffs of the previous year. Santa Barbara, which by tradition changes its nickname from Dons to Golden Tornado for the postseason, was thrashed by Culver City, 55-7. Culver City continued on to win the Division 7 championship, beating San Jacinto 61-21 in the final.
“We traveled into Culver City and played a team with about 15-to-20 Division 1 college athletes,” Stone recalled. “That was an eye-opening experience in the regard of, ‘OK, now we know what this is.’
“It helped prepare us for teams like Lompoc and Palmdale — schools with great athletes — which we were able to beat this year.”
The Dons lost to another powerhouse, eventual CIF-State 2A champion Pacifica, on Sept. 20 before winning their next eight games. A 27-21 victory at Lompoc on Oct. 18 propelled them to the league title, and the 37-15, semifinal victory at Palmdale put them into their first CIF-SS title game since their championship team of 1989.
Santa Barbara took this year’s Division 8 final down to the wire before losing to top-ranked Sunny Hills, 24-21, at San Marcos High’s Warkentin Family Stadium.
“It’s not the amount of years that I’ve coached, but it’s times like these when it all comes together,” Stone said. “You can bang your head against the wall for years asking yourself, ‘Why can’t the kids get it?’ After almost 18 years of coaching, to have the kids get it right — Oh man! — that’s the best feeling ever.
“To get a group of teenage minds do that all at one time, do you know how hard that is? For today’s kid especially? So it’s amazing when they all believe in it and finally get something done.”
Santa Barbara will return several of its top players including quarterback Deacon Hill, who passed for 3,102 yards and 33 touchdowns and rushed for another 461 yards and 13 scores. Hill, who earned All-CIF as well as Channel League Offensive Player of the Year honors last fall, has already accepted a scholarship to play at Wisconsin.
Nose guard Noach Wood, the Channel League Defensive Player of the Year, as well as Ty Montgomery, an offensive and defensive back who won Utility Player of the Year, will also be back. Leading rusher Justin Perez and Jake Knecht, who caught 26 passes for 600 yards and five TDs, are returning, as well.
“I told those kids that it’s going to get harder as we go, especially with the new playoff format,” Stone said. “When you win, you move up, so they understand that we’re going to have to be at our best this year.
“But we do have a lot of young talent coming up. We’re going to be asking a lot of the guys like Deacon, Noach, Ty, Jake and Justin who’ve been on varsity since they were sophomores. We still have great leadership, and we’re going to have a lot of young kids who are going to be looking up at these guys who played for a CIF championship.”
He said the team will miss several graduating seniors, four of whom received All-CIF honors: receiver and defensive back Dakota Hill, linebacker Johnny Valencia, defensive end Joshua Rosales, and offensive lineman Chase Kamin.
“Having Dakota transfer in (from Calabasas as a sophomore) was really big,” Stone said. “He brought in a real competitive spirit that had been missing in previous years. Every time he was on the field, he wanted to compete, even if he was just running to get water. It started right there.”
Balance also proved crucial for the Dons, who not only passed for more than 3,100 yards and 33 TDs but also rushed for another 1,852 yards and 27 scores. Defense, however, was probably the area that Santa Barbara improved the most from previous seasons, Stone said.
“Getting Ralph Molina to come over a couple of years ago to be our defensive coordinator was the big piece of that puzzle,” Stone said. “Our defense has been successful ever since.
“And just keeping the same group of coaches over the past six years has been a really big deal. It’s so important, even at the lower levels, when you have that consistency of coaches.”