Few occasions can bring people together like a high school football championship game, especially when their community has a deep history in the sport. So it was that the stadium at San Marcos High — in the shadow of hills that had seen fire, rain, and snow in the previous four days — was packed to capacity on a wet Saturday night when the Santa Barbara High Golden Tornado made its 12th appearance in a CIF Southern Section final.
It was a showdown between the top-ranked teams in Division 8 — No. 1 Sunny Hills and No. 2 Santa Barbara — and it had everything: long scoring drives (despite the conditions, neither team lost a fumble); lightning touchdown strikes; a goal-line stand that forced a field goal; three lead changes in the fourth quarter; and, with 30 seconds remaining, the outcome literally up in the air.
His team trailing 24-21, Golden Tornado quarterback Deacon Hill rifled a pass from the 19-yard line into the middle of the end zone. He had completed such throws many times before, but this time, Sunny Hills defensive back Wilson Cal made an interception to clinch the Lancers’ comeback victory. Update the weather forecast: Heavy tearfall at 9:30 p.m.
The next day, Santa Barbara senior receiver Jackson Gonzales reflected on his last prep football game. Win or lose, he said, it was thrilling to be playing in a supercharged atmosphere.
“It was probably the most crazy game I’ve ever been in,” he said. “It was so loud. We tried to check plays [before the center snap] and could hardly hear.”
After Sunny Hills had taken the lead with 1:38 remaining, Gonzales returned the ensuing kickoff to the 45-yard line, setting up the Golden Tornado’s potential winning drive. Hill completed three passes before his go-for-broke final attempt.
“He’ll learn from this,” Gonzales said of the 6′4″, 220-pound junior quarterback. “He’s going to be great.”
Hill has already accepted an offer to play at Wisconsin. The nice thing about his early commitment is that he can play through next season without the distractions and pressures of recruiting.
Coach J.T. Stone opted to play Saturday’s game at San Marcos rather than at SBCC’s higher-capacity La Playa Stadium, and Gonzales agreed with the decision. “It’s better to play on a high school field,” he said. Even better would have been SBHS’s own Peabody Stadium, but it still needs the finishing touches of a three-year reconstruction project.
It’s to the credit of this year’s seniors, who never got to play a true home game, that they led the Golden Tornado to its first playoff victories since 1989, when it won the CIF Division 2 championship. They inflamed feelings for SBHS football that had been simmering for three decades, a sense of pride that for some families goes back generations.
Other schools and other sports have come along since the Dons could claim to be playing the only game in town. Furthermore, fear of injury has discouraged participation in football.
“I didn’t even know what a concussion was when I played in the ’80s,” said Will Gonzales. He’s well aware of the risks now, being a former football coach at San Marcos and Santa Barbara, and the father of Jackson and Grant Gonzales, a sophomore back at SBHS.
Jackson would not have been able to play in Saturday’s big game if he suffered a concussion after his head hit the turf during Santa Barbara’s semifinal game at Palmdale. He was able to walk off the field after the training staff attended to him. “I took his helmet away and told him he’s not going back in the game,” Will Gonzales said.
The next day, Jackson was checked out at the Sansum Clinic. If he displayed concussion symptoms, he would have been sidelined for at least a week. But there was no evidence of lingering damage, and he was cleared to play.
The required procedure put his father’s mind at ease. “Protecting my son’s brain is the number-one priority,” Will Gonzales said. “He’s looking at Ivy League schools.”
Claremont-Mudd is also on Jackson’s college list. He has a 4.6 grade-point average and wants to study engineering as well as giving Division 3 football a shot. “I’m not the biggest guy,” the 5′10″, 170-pounder said, “but I’m fast.”
He also plays basketball for the Dons and went to practice in the gym Monday.
SOCCER SHOCKER: The NCAA men’s soccer tournament is beyond sweet for the UCSB Gauchos. They stunned No. 5–seeded Indiana, 1-0, in the round of 16 on Sunday. It was 0-0 in the second overtime and seemingly headed to penalty kicks when a Hoosier defender slipped and Will Baynham pounced on the ball and slammed it 18 yards into the back of the net. Sharing the spotlight was sophomore goalkeeper Ben Roach, who made a couple of big saves to keep it scoreless.
The unseeded Gauchos are one step away from reaching the College Cup for the first time since they won the national championship in 2006, another year when they sprung a series of upsets. They play at Wake Forest, the No. 4 seed, at 2 p.m. PST Saturday.
THEY’RE BACK: After a five-year dry spell, the UCSB women’s volleyball team will make its 29th appearance in the NCAA tournament. In the first round Thursday, the Gauchos are playing Texas State at Austin, Texas.