Mistakes plague Dons in Cunningham’s impressive debut

OXNARD — Imagine going into your first live performance without doing a dress rehearsal. Things could get a little messy.

That’s how it went for the Santa Barbara High football team in its season opener Friday night at Channel Islands.

The Dons committed 14 penalties, including nine in the first half, turned the ball over four times and dropped a 20-14 decision to the Raiders.

“It all comes down to we mentally messed up,” Santa Barbara coach Jaime Melgoza said. “We had a lot of penalties. This was like a scrimmage for us, That’s what happens when you don’t get a scrimmage.”

The rash of mistakes overshadowed an impressive varsity debut by sophomore running back Cheroke Cunningham. He rushed for 142 yards on 16 carries and scored both Santa Barbara touchdowns.

“He’s going to be a great football player,” Melgoza said. “We’re not going to make these mistakes every game. We’re a disciplined football team … we didn’t show it tonight but we are a disciplined football team.”

Cunningham looked at ease on the field, showing good instincts and making tacklers miss. With the scored tied at 14, he ripped off back-to-back runs of 13 and 40 yards after Jason Jimenez recovered a Channel Islands fumble at the Dons’ 3-yard line.

But Santa Barbara blew any momentum it created by fumbling on the next play.

It was that kind of night for the Dons. They had two interceptions nullified by penalties, and quarterback Shawn Ramos was picked off three times.

Santa Barbara piled up 70 yards on nine penalties in the first half and yet still managed to be tied 7-7 at the break. Channel Islands had penalty issues, too, committing five for 43 yards in the first 24 minutes.

A couple of those penalties helped Santa Barbara on its first touchdown drive.  After Ramos completed a 49-yard pass to Fernando Arrellano, the Raiders were called for a personal foul, putting the ball at the CI 13. On first down, Cunningham picked his way through the defense and scored his first varsity touchdown at the 8:21 mark.

Channel Islands responded with a 74-yard drive in 14 plays. Santa Barbara actually stopped the drive with an interception of a Steven Gutierrez pass inside the 10. But the Dons were called for pass interference and the Raiders kept the ball. Running back Richard Gray scored on a 5-yard run to tie the score at 7-7 with 3:34 left in the second quarter.

The Dons got a good kickoff return from Arrellano to their 42, and moved the ball to the CI 27. But on second and 7, Ramos had his pass picked off.

“He’s got to get more poised; he’s got to believe in his line,” said Melgoza. “He’s got to stick in the pocket longer. “Sometimes you got to take the hit.”

Santa Barbara thought it got a break when Efren Sanchez intercepted a pass from Gutierrez. The play, however, was waved off because of a defensive holding penalty by the Dons against the Raiders’ 6-7 tight end Jeremiah Valoaga.

Valoaga not only is a tall target, he’s got great hands. He finished with eight catches for 132 yards and a touchdown.

“He’s everything for us right now,” said CI coach Gary Porter

After a sloppy first half, Santa Barbara continued to make things tough on itself with two more penalties on its first possession of the second half.

The Dons, however, turned Cunningham loose and he led the team on an 80-yard drive, ripping off big runs of 26, 12 and 14 yards. Rudy Corrales then crossed up the Raiders’ defense with a 22-yard burst up the middle to put the ball at the 3-yard line.

Cunningham finished the drive by going over left guard for the touchdown and a 14-7 lead at 8:56 of the third quarter.

Channel Islands went to Valoaga to even the score. He caught a pass over the middle, stiff armed a defender and rambled 36 yards into the end zone.

“He is a handful,” Melgoza said. “He’s a great football player, but we didn’t get beat by one guy.”

The Raiders kept pushing the ball, but the Dons got huge fumble recoveries from Jimenez and James Stevens deep in their end of the field to stay in the game.

Channel Islands scored the winning touchdown after Mark Raigoza intercepted Ramos at the 30 and returned the ball to the Santa Barbara 12.

JImenez broke up a pass to Valoaga on second down, but Gutierrez hit Raigoza on a fade pattern on third down for the go-ahead score. The PAT was missed, leaving the score at 20-14 with 7:57 left.

Santa Barbara couldn’t muster anything in the final minutes as a Valoaga-led rush got to Ramos for two sacks and forced the Dons to punt the ball away for the last time.

“He’s in on everything,” said Porter of Valoaga. “Every big play, he’s on it.”

Gutierrez had a good night throwing the ball for the Raiders, finishing 17 of 25 for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Gray rushed for 110 yards on 18 carries.

Corrales rushed for 47 yards on seven carries for the Dons, while Ramos completed 8 of 15 for 103 yards.

The Dons host Beverly Hills next Friday.


Santa Barbara…0  7  7  0 — 14

Channel Islands…0  7  7  6 — 20

Second quarter

SB—Cunningham 13 run (Medina kick), 8:21

CI— Gray 4 run (Hernandez kick), 3:34

Third quarter

SB—Cunningham 3 run (Medina kick), 8:56

C—Valoaga 36 pass from Gutierrez (Hernandez kick), 6:51

Fourth quarter

C—Raigoza 11 pass from Gutierrez (kick failed), 7:57.