PALM DESERT — The Golden Tornado live to fight another day.
The Santa Barbara High football team showed its toughness and resilience, coming away with a 42-32 victory over Palm Desert Friday night to advance to the quarterfinals of the CIF Southern Section Div. 8 playoffs.
Despite jumping out to an 18-point lead with under 10 minutes to play, Friday’s victory was anything but easy. Ahead by three points and facing a 4th and 11 with 1:05 left, the Golden Tornado passed up a 41-yard field goal attempt and instead elected to go for it.
Deacon Hill dropped back, threw it into the end zone and into the arms of a leaping Dakota Hill to seal the victory.
“Our chemistry was perfect tonight,” an exhausted Dakota Hill said after the win. “I don’t think I dropped a ball. We had a great game tonight.”
Dakota had a team-high seven receptions for 190 yards and 2 TDs, including the dagger that helped Santa Barbara advance.
“He came in his sophomore year when I was a freshman and that connection was just kind of there,” said Deacon. “He was on the varsity and I was on the JV, but he still stayed after practice and we threw together. We’ve been working on that connection.
“It feels great to get this win,” he added. “Especially that feeling of coming down to the wire, the game being close and pushing through with your brothers — that’s the best part.”
Hill played a very efficient game, completing 20 of his 26 pass attempts for 342 yards and 4 TDs.
Santa Barbara (10-2) had a field goal blocked on its first possession but bounced back to score on the next three offensive possessions. Hill connected with Moki Nacario for a 19-yard TD to open the scoring before throwing a beautiful pass down the Golden Tornado sideline, hitting Dakota in stride for a 61-yard score to make it 14-3.
Palm Desert wouldn’t go quietly. Quarterback Zavier Hill-Kemp scored on a one-yard run to make it 14-10. Following a two-yard TD by Justin Perez, the Aztecs answered with a 38-yard TD pass from Hill-Kemp to Isaiah Durant, who was joined on the catch by Nacario in the end zone, to make it 21-17 at the half.
The Santa Barbara defense did a tremendous job slowing the Palm Desert rushing attack. Simon Gaete, who entered the game as the team’s single-season rushing leader with 2,328 yards and 28 TDs, was limited to just 89 yards on 16 carries.
“That offense was a challenge, but the defense held up and we held our composure,” said defensive end Joshua Rosales. “We made the stops when it counted.”
The Golden Tornado defense forced the Aztecs to punt on their first two offensive possessions in the second half and the offense was able to capitalize.
Hill found Jackson Gonzales over the middle with under 5 minutes to play in the third quarter for a 16-yard score. Hill would add a rushing touchdown with 9:59 left in the game to make it 35-17.
Palm Desert didn’t give in. Hill-Kemp’s five-yard rushing touchdown with 5:25 left made it 35-24.
Palm Desert was able to get the ball back on an onside kick attempts on the ensuing kickoff. Although the ball never traveled 10 yards to allow the kicking team to recover, a Santa Barbara player touched the ball and the Aztecs hopped on it — even though Santa Barbara came away from the scrum with the football.
The final three minutes of Friday’s game felt like an eternity.
With 2:49 left, the referees called for a video review to ensure the chains were aligned properly. Once the dust finally settled, the Aztecs had the ball at the Santa Barbara 2 yard line and scored one play later on a Gaete touchdown run. The 2-point conversion was successful to make it a three-point game.
Jackson Gonzales was able to recover the ensuing onside kick to give his team the ball back, and the Golden Tornado would not be denied.
Santa Barbara coach J.T. Stone, with sweat pouring down his face, was elated his team came out on the winning side.
“I was sweating every series,” he admitted. “This is a playoff game and it could be the refs, it could be the weather, it could be your play — you just never know.
“I was definitely worried because it was a playoff atmosphere. Anything can happen, and it almost did.”
Stone was impressed with his signal caller’s performance from start to finish.
“We wanted to slow down the game and he did that — and he was efficient,” he said. “He managed the game the way I wanted him to tonight and that was probably the most impressive performance because of that.
“He’s been around the program for a very long time and he’s been trained to be a quarterback,” Stone added. “He’s taken on that challenge to be the guy and he’s just an ambassador for this program. He’s awesome.”
Hill has emerged as a leader for the Golden Tornado, not just because of his play between the white lines but because of his vocal leadership he has displayed throughout the season.
“I want to be that leader that the team needs,” he said. “Nerves were there, but you’ve got to stay composed.”
He said that the team took notice of the comments made by Palm Desert coach Shane McCombs leading up to Friday’s matchup.
“Their coach mentioned something about us being smaller and that their DBs could cover our receivers, which they weren’t really able to do tonight,” he said. “I think that motivation just drove us into this game. We’ve been doubted this whole year and that just drove us.”
Dakota, who was one of six receivers to record a reception in the win, said he has been impressed with the way Deacon has performed when the spotlight shines the brightest.
“Having somebody back there that you can rely on, who will hit you whenever you’re open — it’s what you need to win a championship,” he said. “That’s what we’re going for.”
The Golden Tornado will travel to Palmdale next week, as the Falcons beat Aliso Niguel 13-12.
“These kids believe,” Stone said. “They believe mentally that they can make it and they believe in each other. That’s all I can ask for. There’s nothing special we were doing… it’s just a lot of years and time. And they finally believe in it… the sky is the limit for this football team.”