Quarterback Deacon Hill hands off to running back Justin Perez during the semifinal win over Palmdale. The improved Santa Barbara running game has been key to the team’s success. (Noozhawk file photo)

There’s a popular cheer at high school sporting events that goes: “I believe … I believe … I believe that we will win …”

That cheer seems like a perfect theme for the Santa Barbara High football team.

Belief has been a huge factor in the team’s journey to Saturday’s 7 p.m. CIF-SS Division 8 championship game against top-seeded Sunny Hills at San Marcos’ Warkentin Stadium.

Belief the players could trust and support each other.

Belief the coaches could make the right decisions.

Belief the team could bounce back from consecutive losses to St. Bonaventure and Pacifica.

Dakota Hill has been on fire in the playoffs, catching six touchdown passes—two in each victory.

Dakota Hill has been on fire in the playoffs, catching six touchdown passes—two in each victory. (Noozhawk file photo)

Belief the offensive line could develop into a force and give the team a solid running game.

Belief the team could win at Lompoc and capture the outright Channel League championship.

Belief it could win the first CIF playoff game in 30 years.

Belief it could handle two long road trips, beat two quality opponents and reach the championship game.

“They just did everything we asked them to do,” sixth-year Santa Barbara coach J.T. Stone said after the 37-15 semifinal win at Palmdale. “There is nothing greater when kids believe in something and believe they can do something to get it done. They believed and they got it done.”

The second-seeded Golden Tornado and Sunny Hills enter the title game with 11-2 records. Both teams snapped long playoff losing streaks: Santa Barbara hadn’t won a postseason game in 30 years and Sunny Hills in 22 years. Sunny Hills last played in a CIF Final in 1992, while Santa Barbara’s last appearance came in 1989, when it shared the Division 2 title after a 7-7 tie with Muir.

A turning point in this year’s Santa Barbara season came after a 31-6 beat-down by St. Bonaventure in Week 4. The team was dominated on the line scrimmage and held without an offensive touchdown

“That team right there (St. Bonaventure) is a reflection of us, really,” said Stone after the game.  “They’re the same type of players. But, like I told my guys, there’s just a little more discipline on that football team tonight.”

He added: “The football team that showed up tonight is not the football team that I know.”

Stone had a “heart to heart” discussion with his team after the loss and the players took his words to heart.

They lost to a potent Pacifica team — which is playing in the Division 6 final — the following week and haven’t lost since, rolling off eight straight wins.

“It was their confidence and their belief,” Stone said of the team’s change in mindset. “That’s why we are where we are today.”

A phrase he often uses about the development of his players is they’ve become “masters of their craft.”

The offensive line could be the poster boys of that phrase. Their improvement has made Santa Barbara a more balanced team. Running backs Ty Montgomery and Justin Perez and quarterback Deacon Hill are averaging more than four yards a carry.

“The line is stepping up tremendously the last few weeks,” said Deacon Hill after the Palmdale win.

Deacon Hill has thrown four touchdown passes in each of the three playoff wins. He has 33 TD passes for the season.

Deacon Hill has thrown four touchdown passes in each of the three playoff wins. He has 33 TD passes for the season. (Noozhawk file photo)

Hill has been mastering the intricacies that come with playing quarterback, making the Golden Tornado dangerous anywhere on the field.

The junior, an early commit to Wisconsin, has shown great composure throughout the pressure cooker of playoff football.

“We’re in a no-huddle offense but that doesn’t mean a damn thing,” Stone stressed. “You don’t need to be in a hurry. We hammer it all the time: ‘Deacon, slow down and look.’ And he does that. He’s smart. You just can’t come out here and play the game. You got to understand the game and he really understands it.

“He makes my job easier.”

Hill and his terrific receiving corps of Jackson Gonzales, Moki Nacario, Dakota Hill and Jake Knecht have shredded opposing defenses.

The Hills (no relation) have really shined in the playoffs, hooking up twice for scores in each playoff win. Knecht made a great block on Dakota’s second score that sealed the win at Palmdale.

Earlier in the season, the speedy and powerful Dakota Hill went four straight games without catching a TD pass.

Stone knew he had to change things up in the passing game.

“I had to look at our offense and see where we can get him the ball and it makes sense. And we were able to do that, he said of getting Dakota Hill more involved. “We adjusted. I also moved him to slot receiver because he was backside and I wanted him in Deacon’s face. That changed a lot.”

Said Deacon Hill:  “We switched him into slot and I’ve been able to get him the ball a lot more.”

And the Hills have come alive, causing havoc for opposing defenses.

Santa Barbara will get a big emotional boost on Saturday as Gonzales returns to the lineup after being injured early in the semifinal game.

Stone told his players after Gonzales’ injury: “We win for Jackson so Jackson plays next week, bottom line. He means so much to us and we owe it to him,” the coach said.

The Golden Tornado got it done.

“We play for each other and we’ve got to see him (on the field) next week. He deserves to play in the CIF championship game,” said Stone after the game.

He added: “There’s nothing greater than seeing these kids playing for a CIF championship in their home town. We were road warriors this whole entire thing, so it’s really an accomplishment for these kids because it’s hard to win on the road.

“I’m happy these kids get to come home because there are a lot of people who want to see them play.”


Tickets are $12 for adults and $5 for students with ID. They will be sold at San Marcos on game day.

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Barry Punzal, Sports Editor

— Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at bpunzal@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.