With just under five minutes left in the CIF-SS Division 4 Quarterfinals on Friday and the score tied at 21-21, the Santa Barbara High defense had forced a 3rd and 8 for the Corona Del Mar offense on their own side of the field.
Sea King quarterback Kaleb Annett floated a ball across the middle of the field and a Golden Tornado defender collided with the intended receiver as the ball arrived. The hard hit drew a flag for a hit on a defenseless receiver, sending the Peabody Stadium crowd into an uproar.
“I hate to say it, but I’m going to say it. That wasn’t a penalty; it was a clean hit with his shoulder,” Santa Barbara coach Nate Mendoza said. “I don’t know what he is supposed to do.”
That penalty put Corona Del Mar in Golden Tornado territory, where they completed back-to-back chunk plays to set up kicker Colin Pene, who drilled a 30-yard field goal to go ahead 24-21 with one minute remaining.
Unfortunately for the home crowd, Abel Renteria and the Santa Barbara offense couldn’t get into scoring range as Renteria was sacked on the final Hail Mary attempt, clinching a 24-21 victory for the Sea Kings.
The loss put an end to a strong season for the senior-heavy Golden Tornado team, who finished with a record of 9-3.
“What a gift for a first-year coach in this program to get a senior class like that,” Mendoza said of his seniors who have played together since youth football. “Obviously the combo of all three grade classes (sophomores, juniors, seniors) made up a great team but the seniors are just a great group.
“Can’t say enough about that group… We’re going to miss them.”
While it ultimately came down to the wire, the first half went about as well as Santa Barbara High could’ve hoped as they held a 14-0 heading into the halftime locker room.
After back-to-back punts to start the action, Renteria swung a screen pass out to Kai Mault, who then weaved through defenders down to the Corona Del Mar 6-yard line for a gain of 54.
That big play set up a 7-yard touchdown pass from Renteria to Winston Bartley, putting the Golden Tornado up 7-0 with 2:37 to go in the first quarter.
The Sea Kings then answered with a long drive of their own, getting down to the 5-yard line of Santa Barbara High. However, the Golden Tornado held strong and forced a 21-yard field-goal attempt, which was missed to preserve the 7-0 advantage.
The Santa Barbara High offense kept the momentum going on the ensuing drive, as once again it was Mault making an electrifying play to set up a score.
With the Golden Tornado facing a 3rd and 22 from their own 48-yard line, Renteria found Mault on a short out route and the junior wideout did the rest, scampering 50 yards down the sideline to the 2-yard line.
“It seems like whenever a big play is needed, Kai comes through,” Mendoza said. “He’s one of those kids where in big moments, he rises up.”
Following the big play, Renteria barrelled his way into the endzone on a quarterback keeper to extend the lead to 14-0 with 1:50 left in the half.
Corona Del Mar’s offense had a chance to move down the field and get a score before halftime, but the Golden Tornado offense forced a three-and-out to maintain the shutout.
“To hold them to zero points in the first half… The defense played outstanding,” Mendoza said.
Following a pair of stalled drives to open up the half, Santa Barbara High was forced to punt with 8:34 left in the third quarter.
Sea King return man Dillon Lane took the punt and found a crease, exploding for 47 yards to get all the way down to the Golden Tornado 6-yard line.
“They got sparked on that punt return, it kind of gave them life,” Mendoza said.
From there, Owen Sanders rushed in Corona Del Mar’s first score of the game to cut the lead in half at 14-7.
The Sea King defense then took advantage of some of that momentum that came from the punt return and score, forcing another Golden Tornado punt.
Annett and the Corona Del Mar offense went to work, executing a 14-play drive that began at their own 10-yard line and included pass plays of 26 and 33 yards.
The drive, which leaked over into the fourth quarter, was rounded out with another 6-yard rushing touchdown by Sanders, tying the game up at 14-14 with 11:54 remaining.
After yet another stalled offensive drive by the Golden Tornado, the Sea King offense kept it rolling on the backs of Annett and running back Wyatt Lucas, who ended with 63 yards on the ground.
It was a different drive, but the same result for Corona Del Mar as Sanders punched in his third rushing touchdown from two yards out to take their first lead of the night at 21-14 with 6:35 to go.
Sanders collected 48 rushing yards and his three touchdowns on nine attempts, all in the second half. One of the biggest discrepancies between the two teams came in the run game, as Corona Del Mar totaled 130 yards on the ground while Santa Barbara managed just 26.
“They came through and they made the plays and we didn’t,” Mendoza said of the Sea Kings’ second-half surge. “They did a good job tonight stopping the run, it felt like we could never get the run game going too much.”
Santa Barbara High wasn’t done yet, though, as the offense got into Corona Del Mar territory on the very next drive.
Facing a 3rd and 13, Renteria once again looked to his favorite target in Mault, hitting him in stride across the middle of the field for a 34-yard touchdown pitch and catch, knotting the game up at 21-21 with 4:52 left on the clock.
Mault ended the night with five catches for 155 yards and a touchdown.
“For the offense, down seven, to come back down and tie it was awesome,” Mendoza said. “It was classic Abel and Kai is just clutch, Kai is always clutch.”
While that score brought the Peabody Stadium crowd back into the game, Corona Del Mar quieted them once again with the game-winning drive that included the controversial penalty call and ended with Pene’s 30-yard field goal.
“That 3rd and 10 (where the penalty occurred) will stick in my head for a long time,” Mendoza said. “Our boys battled all the way to the end. You just hate to see the seniors lose that game because we felt like we were going to win it.”
Renteria, whose three-year career as the starting quarterback came to an end, finished 17-of-30 for 241 yards and two touchdowns to go along with his score on the ground.
Mendoza had high praise for his QB1 after the game.
“Great career by Abel, I don’t know if anyone can match that career he had,” Mendoza said. “I don’t know if you can ever have a kid that is that successful and talented and can be that humble.
“He has the pressure of trying to fill his dad’s shoes, everybody knows who his dad is around here. That never mattered, he always put his teammates first. It’s very rare to have a talented kid with that type of career be so humble and it was just a pleasure to coach him.”
The Golden Tornado will now head into an offseason in which the young talent showcased throughout the season will have to step into the shoes of an impressive senior class.