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Santa Barbara Takes No. 1 Saugus Down to Wire, Falls Short, 25-21

Dons quarterback Frankie Gamberdella throws for 237 yards and two TDs in second half

A  Saugus defender knocks the football out of the arms of Santa Barbara’s Natani Drati in the end zone with 12 seconds remaining in the game. Click to view larger
A Saugus defender knocks the football out of the arms of Santa Barbara’s Natani Drati in the end zone with 12 seconds remaining in the game.  (JC Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

Fans at La Playa Stadium saw a young Santa Barbara High football team grow up in the second half of its season-opening game against Saugus on Saturday night.

After struggling to get going and falling behind 18-0 in the first half, the Dons pulled together and put a scare into the top-ranked team in the CIF-Southern Section Division 6 preseason poll, roaring back in the second half and coming so close to scoring a winning touchdown in the final seconds. They fell short, 25-21.

Junior quarterback Frankie Gamberdella had a couple cracks at throwing a winning touchdown. With 12 seconds to go, he almost connected with Natani Drati. Then, on the last play of the game, Gamberdella fired a Hail Mary toward Oliver Vallejo that was broken up by Matthew Ballentine of Saugus.

Gamberdella and his teammates were different players in the second half. The offensive line did a better job protecting the quarterback, Gamberdella created more time to find open receivers with his scrambling and the defense, led by middle linebacker Henry Hepp, contained the Saugus attack.

“I think because we’re so young it took us awhile to get through that first half,” Santa Barbara coach JT Stone said. “We didn’t play well. We had to adjust our offensive line … their defense was bringing pressure. But the way our kids came back in the second after we went in the locker room and talked about making adjustments, the way they fought back, if we had one more quarter we might win this ballgame. We were a play away.”

Gamberdella was special in the second half,  throwing for 237 yards and a pair of scores. He completed nine passes for 94 yards on an 80-yard touchdown drive that was extended by Santa Barbara penalties. Dallas Redick caught a 16-yard pass for the score. A two-point conversion pass from Gamberdella to sophomore Jackson Gonzales made it a 25-15 game with 5:38 in the third quarter.

On Saugus’ next series, the Centurions fumbled and Ben Carreno of the Dons recovered at the 25. 

Santa Barbara quarterback Frankie Gamberdella scrambles for a key first down, Click to view larger
Santa Barbara quarterback Frankie Gamberdella scrambles for a key first down, (JC Corlss / Noozhawk photo)

Faced with a fourth and 4 at the 19, Gamberdella made a terrific scramble for eight yards and a first down. Three plays later, he hit Redick on an 8-yard pass for a touchdown. The PAT kick was blocked, leaving the Dons behind 25-21 with 3:50 left in the fourth quarter.

Saugus recovered Santa Barbara’s onside kick, but the Dons defense held. 

Santa Barbara got the ball back at its 20 and Gamberdella went back to work. He hit Oliver Vallejo for six yards and then hooked up with Drati for 32 and six yards, putting the ball at the Saugus 36 with 12 seconds to play.

He went for Drati again and the standout receiver got his hands on the ball but couldn’t hold on to it as he and a defender went down in the right corner of the end zone.

“I thought he caught it,” Gamberdella said. “I couldn’t see the ball pop out,  I thought it was a touchdown.”

Gamberdella threw to the left side on the final play but the Saugus defender knocked the ball down.

“I was shocked on the last play. The Hail Mary was open,  I just under threw it a little bit,” he said.

Gamberdella completed 34 of 55 passes 345 yards. Drati caught 11 balls for 149 yards and sophomore Jackson Gonzales had seven catches for 110 yards. 

“Frankie Gamberdella, my hat’s off to him,” said Dons coach JT Stone. “He was banged up the first half. He came back and battled, and he didn’t want to come out. He led this team back to a comeback. Unfortunately, we fell four points short but their effort was humungous and I’m extremely happy. We’re going to get better.”

Gamberdella said Stone’s locker room talk at halftime helped turn the team around.

“The line really got it together and picked it up. The sprints at practice really helped there, too,” he said.

The Dons fell behind in the first minute of the game. Saugus scored on its first play from scrimmage as senior quarterback Nathan Eldridge threw 53 yards to Trevor Girch for the touchdown. The Centurions failed on a two-point conversion pass, leaving them with a 6-0 lead.

Dallas Redick of the Dons runs into the end zone after catching a pass from Frankie Gamberdella. Click to view larger
Dallas Redick of the Dons runs into the end zone after catching a pass from Frankie Gamberdella. (JC Corliss / Noozhawk photo)

They made it 12-0 on their next possession behind the running of power back Quinn Sheaffer. Eldridge rolled away from pressure and hit Devin Thompson on an 18-yard touchdown pass. Saugus again failed on a two-point conversion pass, making it 12-0.

De’Maurea Pride-Ruiz rambled 24 yards to give the Centurions an 18-0 lead with 11:53 left in the second quarter.

The Dons got back in the game when junior Jacob Forney blocked a Saugus punt. They took over at the 8 and scored three plays later on a 5-yard pass from Gamberdella to Gonzales. Jose Lopez kicked the PAT to make the score 18-7.

Santa Barbara was now in the flow of the game. The next time it got the ball, Drati made a spectacular catch of a 30-yard bomb while falling backwards.  Santa Barbara had the ball at the 16, but Saugus came after Gamberdella and forced a fumble.

“Saugus is a really good football team and they blitzed almost every play,” Gamberdella said.  “We finally figured them out and we had them under control (in the second half). The first half was just the pressure and me getting flushed out (of the pocket) a lot. The second half was a lot better. I felt a lot more comfortable rolling out and giving myself more time and letting the line work for me a little more. It opened a lot of receivers too.”

The hits on Gamberdella took their toll in the waning moments of the first half. After connecting with Gonzales on a 53-yard pass play to the 3, Gamberdella took a late hit and had to come out of the game. 

“The first half I was hurting,” he said. “I took a lot of hits that half and my elbow got a little messed up. With couple of seconds left, I couldn’t feel it and I also hit my head pretty hard. That’s also why I came out.”

The offense was out of sorts and the Dons ran out of time, leaving the ball at the 1.

“That last sequence, guys were bringing pressure and Frankie was a little banged up,” Stone said.  “When your mind is not right and you’re tired …. it was just a sequence of nonsense that I can’t even explain.”

But the Dons got it right in the second half and showed they are a team with a huge upside.

“I’m so excited for practice on Monday,” said Stone.

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