After Four Years Away, the Dons Are Finally Back Home

With Peabody Stadium Complete and COVID Winding Down, Santa Barbara High Seniors Finish Out Their Shortened Season

Credit: Max Abrams

Quarterback Deacon Hill faked a sweep to wide receiver Anthony Loza and an inside handoff to freshman running back Koa Herrera before taking off left into the open field.

Loza picked up the final block that sprung Hill for a 34-yard touchdown run. The first trip to the end zone in the newly renovated Peabody Stadium came on a beautiful Thursday night in April.

“All the pieces came into place on that play,” Hill said of the touchdown run that put in motion the Santa Barbara High Dons’ 34-12 victory over visiting Hueneme.

For the SBHS seniors, making plays under the lights of their home stadium was a dream that finally came to fruition. The last time a touchdown was scored in Peabody Stadium more than four years ago, the class of 2021 was not yet in high school and, due to COVID-19, it appeared they would never play a game on their home turf.

“We all kind of moved past it,” Hill said. “Most of the seniors started getting jobs. Practice wasn’t really a thing for us anymore.”

But once they received word that an abbreviated spring season was indeed going to happen, key seniors — including Hill, Noach Wood, Jake Knecht, Justin Perez, and Ty Montgomery — were ready to go. Montgomery, who plays offense and defense and is the team’s primary kicker, took a break from baseball to embrace a final opportunity to pursue gridiron glory.

“It’s worth it to get to play a couple more games with the seniors and finish it out,” said Montgomery. “We were kind of doubtful there’d be a season. It was a big surprise.”

These same seniors helped break Santa Barbara High’s 30-year curse of playoff ineptitude in the fall of 2019, making it to the CIF-SS Division 8 championship game without playing any true home games. They suffered a heartbreaking 24-21 loss to Sunny Hills on the campus of rival San Marcos. 

The original goal this year was to take it one step further: to win a championship. With a once-in-a-generation quarterback at the helm, it seemed possible until the season was delayed and then the playoffs were canceled. Now all that remains is for memories to be made, and Peabody Stadium is a big part of that.

The stadium was originally constructed in 1924, and after nearly 100 years of wear and tear, it was in desperate need of renovations. Like most major construction projects, it experienced its fair share of delays, and even on the day of the first football game, administrators were still putting some of the final cosmetic effects into place. The result is an athletic citadel worthy of the majestic Santa Barbara scenery that surrounds it.

Credit: Max Abrams

“For us, this season is really to gear up for next season and to allow our seniors to come out and have some fun,” said Santa Barbara High coach JT Stone. “We haven’t put a W on the board in this stadium in almost five years, so it’s just a good feeling to be at home. I’m happy for the kids and happy for the community.”

Without a CIF championship to chase, Stone has embraced a youth movement. All five starting offensive linemen are juniors. A sophomore, Nathan Barrios, and freshman Herrera have taken the bulk of the snaps at running back. The receiving core is primarily juniors and sophomores after an injury sidelined Knecht.

Hill is now also a coach on the field. It is a natural development for the senior, who could easily already be at the University of Wisconsin, participating in spring ball like many of the other top quarterbacks in the country.

“It’s definitely a learning experience, a curve, and I think it’s the best experience I could have had going into college,” said Hill of his role in developing the younger players. “These guys are going to be really good. Miguel Unzueta is going to be a baller, Trent Williams is going to be a baller, all of them are going to be ballers. They just need to get into that varsity rhythm and that varsity speed.”

Peabody Stadium will host two more games in this unusual spring season — only family members are permitted to attend — as the Dons face Dos Pueblos on Friday, April 9, before concluding their season against an undefeated Lompoc team on Friday, April 16.

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