With under 30 seconds remaining, Deacon Hill dropped back and unleashed a fast ball into the end zone that cut through the driving rain in the direction of Jake Knecht, but Sunny Hills defensive back Wilson Cal jumped the post route and hauled in a game-clinching interception that lifted the Lancers to a 24-21 victory.
In that moment, the dream of a CIF Championship that captivated the Santa Barbara community came to a devastating end.
“My hats off to him he played extremely well. I’m not going to base anything off of one throw. He threw a pick at the end of the game. He tried to make a play,” said Santa Barbara High coach J.T. Stone of Hill. “If you give him the ball again I guarantee he’ll make that touchdown.”
The Dons will always wonder what could have been after taking a commanding 14-3 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Sunny Hills got on the board first after taking the opening kickoff and marching 81 yards on 18 plays. The marathon drive stalled on the five-yard line and the Lancers settled for a 22-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
Santa Barbara responded with a 15 play, 65 yard drive of its own, culminating in a one-yard touchdown plunge by Hill to take a 7-3 lead with 10:25 remaining in the second quarter.
After a quick Sunny Hills three-and-out the Dons took over on the opposing 41-yard line and capped off a six-play drive with a 20-yard pass from Deacon Hill to Dakota Hill for a touchdown, increasing the lead to 14-3 with 6:25 remaining in the first half.
The Lancers have been a team of destiny throughout the playoffs and were not deterred by their early struggles.
“This is the third of our four playoff game that we’ve been down and so at halftime we said ‘hey guys basically everything went wrong in the first half and it’s only 14-3. We’ll get a stop and we’ll score,’”said Sunny Hills head coach. “Belief is a powerful thing for 16 and 17-year old kids.”
On the opening possession of the second half a screen pass by Hill was intercepted by Sunny Hills defensive linemen Kenny Lathrum. Seven plays later, the Lancers reached the end zone on a nine-yard run by Vincent Silva cutting their deficit to 14-10.
Ball control was a key to the Sunny Hills comeback. The Lancers took over the ball on their own 20-yard line late in the third quarter and milked nearly eight minutes off the clock with a 16-play drive that resulted in the go-ahead touchdown on a four-yard pass from Luke Duxbury to Silva, giving the Lancers a 17-14 lead with 7:26 remaining in the game.
The Dons came back with a seven play 72 yard drive capped off by a 29-yard touchdown run by Hill right up the middle to take a 21-17 lead with 4:42 remaining.
In need of one stop to claim the CIF Championship, Santa Barbara forced Sunny Hills into fourth-and-two at its own 39-yard line, but Brandon Roberts took a handoff around the edge for three yards and a first down with just under two minutes to play.
On the very next play, Duxbury completed a play-action bomb to Silva for a 58-yard touchdown as Sunny Hills took a 24-21 lead with 1:38 remaining.
Jackson Gonzales returned the ensuing kickoff to the 45-yard line and the Dons were in business. Hill completed three consecutive passes of nine, 14 and 9 yards down to the 23-yard line. He then ran for three yards for a first-and-ten from the 20-yard line setting up the decisive play and Cal’s heroics.
“I just saw him go inside and the quarterback was rolling that way so I just turned my hips and made a play on the ball.We were in single man-to-man so It was just me versus him. I just had to make a play,” Cal said. “You’re going to get hit by adversity, but it’s how you overcome adversity that determines whether you’re a champion or not.”
Hill completed 17-of-29 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed 11 times for 45 yards and two touchdowns.