The Modern High School Quarterback
After a Decade of Training, Deacon Hill Is Santa Barbara High’s Starting QB
by Victor Bryant | Published August 15, 2019
At first glance, Deacon Hill resembles an elite tight end prospect, paving the way for ball carriers at the point of attack, or perhaps a menacing defensive lineman, relying on sheer size and power to terrorize opposing offenses. But like many boys, young Deacon dreamed of being the star quarterback, the ultimate glamour position in American football.
So while the 6’4”, 225-pound 16-year-old could easily be confused for one of his Santa Barbara High blockers during their opening game on Friday, August 23, against Buena, Hill will be the one taking the snaps this season. And once you see him throw the ball, you’ll know exactly why.
“It’s just a matter of time for this kid,” thought Santa Barbara High football coach J.T. Stone in 2012, when he first met Hill and his parents: Pe’a Hill, the beefy Polynesian who was a basketball and football standout into college, and Cindy Battistone Hill, an All-American basketball player at San Marcos High and Brigham Young University (BYU). Then Stone learned about Deacon’s three sisters, who all became water polo royalty at Dos Pueblos High before taking the pool for UCLA.
“I just felt at that point we can’t let a kid in this community go without being trained properly so he can reach his goals,” said Stone, who started working on the gridiron with Hill when the boy was just in 4th grade. Given his size, Stone was initially inclined to train him to be a lineman or linebacker. But Hill was adamant about being QB and had the early talent to back up such desires.
That decade of effort — which required constant parental support and a strategic schedule of extracurricular camps and combine events to attract the attention of college scouts — is now starting to pay off, even though he’s only started three high school varsity games so far. On June 25, Hill announced via Twitter that he had committed to the University of Wisconsin, one of the top collegiate football programs in the country. That tweet ended a whirlwind of college recruitment that took the high school junior-to-be from a relative unknown to highly sought-after prospect in a matter of months.
“He’s got the ‘it’ factor,” said Stone. “And he’s got the work ethic to want to do it.”
Blood, Parents, and Coaching
Innate athleticism pumps through the bloodline of Deacon Hill, the only son of Pe’a Hill and Cindy Battistone Hill. After garnering Division 1 interest in college football as an offensive lineman during his time at Fresno City College, Pe’a played on the BYU–Hawai‘i basketball team. Cindy, meanwhile, is a San Marcos High basketball legend: three-time team MVP and All-League, two-time All-CIF, and a Parade All-American in her senior season. At BYU, she won All-Conference and All-American honors, averaging 22.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 5.5 assists in her senior season.
The couple’s three daughters — Sami, Kodi, and Abbi Hill — became water polo legends at Dos Pueblos. Sami and Kodi both attended UCLA on water polo scholarships and Abbi starts there as a freshman this fall. All three have also made appearances for U.S.A. Water Polo.
Like his parents and sisters, Deacon never focused on just one sport. He started playing water polo around age 4 and kept it up until a few months ago. He’s also played basketball most of his life and still plays for Santa Barbara High. The four siblings’ combined sports schedules required intense parental support, with endless amounts of shuffling from practice to games and back again.
“It takes a lot from the parents,” admitted Cindy. “We didn’t care what sport they played or what they wanted to do — it’s just that, whatever you’re going to do, you’re going to commit to it. It doesn’t matter if it was piano or soccer or whatever it was. You’re going to go to every game, every practice, and you’re not going to miss [anything].”
Parents like Pe’a and Cindy, who’ve put in the time, resources, and energy since the very beginning to help their kids chase athletic goals, are almost mandatory for children who aspire to college and professional sports in today’s highly competitive world. But they’ve also let their kids’ interests be the guiding force.
“You just match their energy and their goals,” explained Pe’a. For Deacon, that goal was to be one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, so training started with Stone in the 4th grade. But Stone and the Hills knew that just competing with this region’s athletes would not be enough.
“You can’t be hiding up here in Santa Barbara — we’re going to take you down south; you’re going to have to go to all the camps and see what you have to go up against,” said Pe’a. “If they want to be the best, then you have to go where the best are and then see how you fit.”
Encouraging him to remain in multiple sports was another smart move. “Water polo was the best thing for Deacon,” Stone said. “That’s why he was able to be good at football because it kept his weight in control. He was always in the water.”
The Games Begin
By the time he got to Santa Barbara High in 2017, Hill was ready to play. In his freshman season, he started as quarterback for the junior varsity squad, passing for 3,037 yards and hurling 38 touchdowns in just 10 games. He moved to varsity full-time in his sophomore year, but that put him behind senior quarterback Frankie Gamberdella, who’d started since his own sophomore year.
Exciting to watch and productive on the scoreboard, Gamberdella often put up video-game numbers with his ability to run and throw as a true dual-threat quarterback. “Frankie was good, and they were two different quarterbacks,” said Pe’a. “It was good for Deacon. It made him work hard.”
But it also tested the Hills’ patience. In the modern era of high school football, many players who have the chance to make it to top Division 1 college football programs don’t wait to become a starter — they simply change schools. High school athletic transfers are exploding: According to the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), there were 14,669 athletic transfers across the state in 2018-19, and 15,106 the previous year.
“We’ve had a lot of offers for him to go play for other high schools,” explained Cindy. “Ever since he started high school, they’ve been saying, ‘Bring him here.’”
They also had to consider exposure. While Santa Barbara is not considered a football hotbed, many Southern California communities are. Deacon even took a tour of Las Vegas powerhouse Bishop Gorman, which boasts college-level training facilities and regularly plays in nationally televised games.
But Pe’a urged his son to stay put. “If you’re any good, they’ll find you,” he’d tell Deacon.
Ultimately, staying in Santa Barbara made the most sense thanks to Hill’s close ties to Stone, who took over as Santa Barbara High’s head coach in 2015. “We want to be loyal to the people that have been loyal to us and the community that has been loyal to us,” Cindy said. “I think it has been a good lesson for him.”
Put Me in, Coach
As expected, playing time was sparse as Hill’s sophomore season began, but his ability to excel was immediately apparent. In the opening game, the Dons were cruising to a 42-14 rout of Buena when Hill came in for mop-up duty. Late in the fourth quarter, on his first drive of the game, Hill shrugged off a tackler in the backfield and unleashed a 60-yard touchdown pass. That was a sign of things to come.
Later in the season, Gamberdella was moved to wide receiver in a game against Lompoc High, which would later win the league. That opened the quarterback slot for Hill. Despite throwing three interceptions in a 28-11 loss, the sophomore held his own against the region’s top competition and gained valuable experience in the process.
During the following week’s 44-12 rout of Cabrillo High, Gamberdella was lost for the season with a broken collarbone. That thrust Hill into the starting quarterback role for the final game of the regular season. The Dons had to beat Dos Pueblos in order to make the playoffs, not to mention earn year-long bragging rights as unofficial city champions.
“I was sick to my stomach for the whole week,” Cindy said. “You’re in this big crosstown rivalry game. If you win, you go to the playoffs. If you lose, you don’t. There was so much pressure on him.”
Hill rose to the occasion, completing 14 of 20 passes for 199 yards and throwing three touchdowns in a 24-7 victory. The Dons made the playoffs.
“Frankie’s parents were the first people to come up to me to tell me, ‘Wow!’” recalled Pe’a of the Gamberdellas. “That was cool. They’re great people.”
With only three varsity starts under his belt and limited game film available for recruiters, Hill’s only option for attracting the attention of top programs going into his junior year was by hitting the off-season camp circuit and 7-on-7 football tournaments hard.
“You can’t deny 6’4”, 225 pounds as a sophomore,” Stone said. “Coaches love that. … Wisconsin is projecting what he’s going to be like as a senior.”
One of the major opportunities for Hill to turn heads was at SoCal Under Armour regional camp, held at Mission Viejo in early March. He shined, as reports out of the camp considered Hill one of the top performers as quarterback due to his rare arm strength. From there, the attention only grew as Hill stacked solid performances together and became a must-see prospect for recruiters.
“If you make sure you are at the right camps, the right combines, and you’re at the college satellite camps, you are fine,” Stone said of this new recruiting world. “But if you sit on your butt at home and you think they’re going to come to you, it’ll never happen here in Santa Barbara. This is not a football culture town yet.”
Hill’s first college scholarship offer came from Wisconsin on May 2 from the school’s quarterbacks coach Jon Budmayr. The next day, the University of Nevada added an offer, and the ball was rolling, with top programs showing interest. On June 17, while visiting Kansas State, Hill received his third scholarship offer, as he’d caught the eye of that team’s coaches during the Cal Lutheran Rising Stars Camp on June 7.
“If you’re really good at camps and not good in the game, they’re obviously not going to recruit you,” explained Hill. “I thought I had enough game film that showed I could make the throws on the field, and then proved it in person that I could do it anytime.”
Even though they had hoped the hard work would pay off with these sorts of offers, the whole process proved surreal for all involved. When all of the offers came, it was Wisconsin that stood out for Hill.
“The recruitment this year was out of control,” said Stone. “We had every school show up, and it just sparked that interest. It was something we talked about from when he was little, and then when it happened, it was crazy. Our heads were spinning.”
Santa Barbara Stars
Perhaps best known as the alma mater of former Philadelphia Eagles star Randall Cunningham, Santa Barbara High has had a good streak of quarterbacks in recent years. John Uribe, class of 2009, played collegiately at SBCC and Lindenwood University, and now plays professionally in Austria; he’s also Hill’s quarterback coach. Brent Peus, class of 2016, walked on at Stanford, and Gamberdella will play at Sacramento State this season, having healed from last year’s injury.
But none of these players were as sought-after as Deacon Hill going into their junior campaigns, including Cunningham. And now Santa Barbara High football fans have two years to watch him blossom into the star quarterback that Wisconsin is betting on.
“It’s a lot nicer just because you don’t have to worry about getting recruited anymore — that’s out the window, and the stress is all over from that,” said Hill. “Now I can just focus on being a leader for the team and being another coach Stone on the field.”
Home-Team Woes:Peabody Stadium Delays
After several setbacks, Peabody Stadium will not be ready for the 2019 football season. The Santa Barbara Dons will play their home schedule at alternative locations, including San Marcos High’s Warkentin Stadium and Dos Pueblos High’s Scott O’Leary Stadium.
The nearly 100-year-old Peabody Stadium was originally built in 1924, and the aged infrastructure added to the challenges of the modernization project. Current projections have the stadium renovations completed around Thanksgiving. For the Dons, success in 2019 will be dependent on thriving in foreign environments.
“That’ll be tough not being able to play at home, especially for the seniors — it’s their last year,” said quarterback Deacon Hill, but he’s confident about the season. “I’m expecting a lot from our team,” he said. “We’re all super close, so it’s good to have that chemistry between each player on offense and defense, and we’re all pushing each other to get better.”
S.B. High Games to Watch
All games begin at 7 p.m.
9/20 vs. Pacifica:
The Tritons out of Oxnard may be the toughest opponent on the Santa Barbara schedule. Pacifica defeated the Dons 34-13 last season and return a stellar senior class. @ Dos Pueblos High Scott O’Leary Stadium
10/4 at San Marcos:
The Dons have not lost to the Royals since Stone took over the program in 2015 and will look to extend that winning streak to five in the annual “Big Game.” @ San Marcos High Warkentin Stadium
10/18 at Lompoc:
The Channel League Title goes through Lompoc. The Braves return several senior standouts, including Cameron Iribarren, Leondre Coleman, Ryan Morgan (who’s committed to Wyoming), and Jacob Nuñez (Arizona State). @ Lompoc High Huyck Stadium
11/1 at Dos Pueblos:
There figures to be a lot on the line when Santa Barbara and Dos Pueblos renew their rivalry in the regular-season finale. @ Scott O’Leary Stadium