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Defense Shines for Santa Barbara in 10-9 Win at Ventura

Jacob Forney stops Ventura 2-point conversion to help Dons go to 2-0 in Channel League

Santa Barbara linebacker Henry Hepp reacts after dropping Ventura’s Noah Conboy for a loss in the fourth quarter. Click to view larger
Santa Barbara linebacker Henry Hepp reacts after dropping Ventura’s Noah Conboy for a loss in the fourth quarter.  (Barry Punzal / Noozhawk photo)

VENTURA —The defense got it done for the Santa Barbara High football team at Ventura on Friday night.

The Dons held the Cougars without an offensive touchdown and stopped their standout running back Chuck Wick on a 2-point conversion in the last six minutes of the fourth quarter to escape Larrabee Stadium with a 10-9 Channel League victory.

The heart-stopping win by Santa Barbara (5-3) was its first over Ventura (4-5) in three years and the first for Dons’ coach JT Stone against the Cougars. It also set up a first-place league showdown next Saturday against Dos Pueblos at La Playa Stadium. Both teams are 2-0. 

It took a brilliant play by linebacker Jacob Forney to prevent Ventura from taking the lead after the Cougars scored on a controversial fumble return for a touchdown with 5:58 left in the game. That made the score 10-9.

With its offense struggling, Ventura elected to go for two. Sophomore Quarterback Carson Willis handed the ball off to Wick, who tried to run wide to the right. But he was met by Forney, who took him down with a solo tackle for a 4-yard loss.

"I was preparing for them to come to that side and give it to Wick, a very good running back," Forney said. "I just a made the play."

Frankie Gamberdella runs behind a block during the Dons’ 10-9 win at Ventura. Click to view larger
Frankie Gamberdella runs behind a block during the Dons’ 10-9 win at Ventura. (Barry Punzal / Noozhawk photo)

Stone raved about Forney's performance. "He played great tonight. That was a humungous play."

Stone said he wasn't surprised Ventura went for two points. 

"Ventura has always gambled like this. They always do trick plays, so I wasn’t surprised. Coach (Tim) Garcia is confident in his play calling and confident in what he does. It just didn’t work for them. They didn’t execute it and our kids were ready for it."

The huge play brought excitement and a sense of relief to the Santa Barbara sideline after it went ballastic following Ventura’s touchdown.

On the play, wide receiver Jackson Gonzales took a big hit as Frankie Gamberdella's pass arrived and the ball dropped to the turf. Ventura safety Noah Conboy picked it up and ran 40 yards for a touchdown.

Santa Barbara coach JT Stone and his staff argued that the play should have been an incomplete pass. But the officials ruled it a fumble and a touchdown.

The play brought back memories of the 2015 game at Ventura, when the Dons thought they scored a winning touchdown only to have it overruled in a 28-24 loss.

"I thought, ‘Here we go again... Frankie’s fumble, just all the little things," Stone said. "We thought it was incomplete because of what they called earlier, but it happens. I thought the refs did a great job tonight. It’s one of those things that happen in football."

Dallas Reddick hits Ventura running back Chuck Wick as his teammates move in to finish the job. Click to view larger
Dallas Reddick hits Ventura running back Chuck Wick as his teammates move in to finish the job. (Barry Punzal / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara fell behind 3-0 as Ventura’s Rourke Rieman kicked a 34-yard field goal on the Cougars’ first possession of the game.  The Dons got a sack by Forney on first down and big tackle by middle linebacker Henry Hepp on Wick on third down to hold Ventura to the field goal.

Ventura entered the game minus several starters who were suspended for disciplinary reasons. Among those missing were the starting quarterback, wide receiver and middle linebacker. The Cougars, however, were still formidable on their Homecoming night.

Santa Barbara got its offense cranked up on its second possession of the game. Gamberdella completed an 18-yard pass to Gonzales, and an 11-yarder to Oliver Vallejo before going deep to Natani Drati for a 31-yard touchdown. Drati ran a stop-and-go route and Gamberdella hit him perfectly in stride for the score.  Jose Lopez kicked the PAT to give the Dons a 7-3 lead at 11:22 of the second quarter,.

The Santa Barbara defense continued to shut down the Cougars. Jeremiah Phillips dropped Wick for a 16-yard loss on third down late in the second quarter.

Wick was held to 62 yards on 25 carries.

The Dons’ offense, meanwhile, sputtered. On one series in the third quarter, it got called for a delay of game penalty on a fourth and 1 from the Ventura 38. They ended up punting and Wick returned the ball 90 yards for an apparent touchdown. 

Dakota Hill of the Dons catches a pass from Frankie Gamberdella. Click to view larger
Dakota Hill of the Dons catches a pass from Frankie Gamberdella. (Barry Punzal / Noozhawk photo)

But the Dons got a huge break when the Cougars were called for an illegal blindside block at their 30.

The runback, however, gave Ventura some momentum. Willis drove the Cougars from the 15 to the Santa Barbara 46. They tried a double pass on fourth and 8, with Gavin Blanks throwing deep for 6-foot-3 Chaz Hunter. But the pass was broken up by Dallas Redick of the Dons.

The Dons then put together a nice drive, taking the ball from their 20 to the Ventura 5 — the drive was aided by couple of major penalties by the Cougars. But Santa Barbara couldn’t get the ball in the end zone and Lopez kicked a 21-yard field goal for a  10-3 lead with 8:46 left in the fourth quarter.

When Ventura got the ball, Hepp made a terrific play to tackle Conboy for a 4-yard loss on third and 1 and Dakota Hill broke up a pass play on fourth down.

"Henry is playing lights out football right now," said Stone. "Somebody needs to take a chance on this young man because he is a very good football player. We ran behind him and his engine this whole week.  He was, ,‘I'm not losing to Ventura High School, I’m not going to do it.’ He took us and led us to this victory."

The Cougars then made their big hit on Gonzalez and Conboy returned the disputed fumble for the touchdown.

Forney’s huge defensive play on the 2-point conversion gave Santa Barbara the boost it needed to finish the game.

"Our offense had some struggles out there, but our defense definitely came to play and made the stops it needed to," said Forney.

On finally beating the Cougars, Forney said: "It’s a good feeling. We had to get this one for coach Stone."

Gamberdella completed 21 of 38 passes for 228 yards and ran for 94 yards on 13 carries to lead the Dons in rushing. Gonzales caught 10 passes for 89 yards and Hill had five receptions for 56 yards.

The Dons used short passes and runs by Gamberdella and a run by Kris Ramirez to move the ball to the Ventura 27. A Ventura penalty for a helmet-to-helmet hit put the ball at the 14. 

On first down with 1:37 left, Gamberdella took off and started to run for the end zone. He took a hit hard at the goal-line and the ball popped out of his arms and rolled through the end zone and out of bounds for a touchback. That gave the ball back to Ventura.

But the Santa Barbara defense came through in the end and held the Cougars on downs.

"When we play Ventura, it’s always a good game and there are so many factors that happen in this game like today, and we had it two years ago," said Stone.

"It was a hard-fought football game," he added. "I think Ventura came out and played the best to their ability. It could have gone either way, but our kids knew how important this football game was. I'm so happy because we got over this hump; we haven’t beaten Ventura, so I'm extremely happy, happy for our program and happy for our kids."

Now comes the showdown with Dos Pueblos. 

"Like I said, anybody can win league.  I think we’re in good position for what the city wants to see next week," said Stone.

Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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