Cunningham’s 4 TDs give Dons “Big Game” victory

The beauty of the Big Game is the unpredictability of it all.

In the 52nd annual city football rivalry between Santa Barbara and San Marcos on Friday night, the underdog and undersized Royals were controlling the line of scrimmage, bottling up Dons star running back Cheroke Cunningham and scoring back-to-back touchdowns to rally for a 14-14 tie at halftime.

Things turned a little more predictable in the second half. The bigger Dons offensive line asserted itself and started opening holes, and Cunningham ran wild, scoring three times in a 35-21 Santa Barbara win before a three-quarter filled Warkentin Stadium.

Cunningham, who scored four TDs and rushed for 160 yards on 24 carries, was named the winner of the Gary Blades Memorial Award, as the Big Game’s MVP. And, he’s only a sophomore.

“The offensive line, that was the key to it,” tight end Emilio Gonzalez said. “They just came out and worked hard.”

Dons coach Jaime Melgoza stressed to the line at halftime that it needed to focus on the game plan, which is running the football.

“Our line said, ‘Ok, Coach. We believe in our running game, we’re going to stick with it. Let’s do it,’ ’’ Melgoza related of the halftime conversation with his team.

In the first half, he said players were too amped, they missed assignments, and San Marcos came to play.

“San Marcos played great defense. They corralled ‘Roke. All around, San Marcos has a lot of class; they did a great job. I told Dare (Royals defensive coordinator Dare Holdren) he did a great job. I respect them.”

San Marcos got a big first-half performance from Marquis Glover, who was back in the lineup after missing several games with an injured quadricep. He rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown, and on defense he was in on several tackles against Cunningham.

Glover finished with 111 yards rushing on 25 carries.

Santa Barbara High’s Cheroke Cunningham was a tough tackle for the Royals on Friday. (Presidio Sports Photos)

After a halftime that included a pair of thong-wearing male streakers and a group of Santa Barbara male students dressed as San Marcos cheerleaders, the Dons football team came out with renewed vigor and commitment. On the opening series of third quarter, they marched down the field on runs by quarterback Shawn Ramos and Cunningham

Cunningham finished the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run to put the Dons back in the lead at 21-14 with 8:58 left in the quarter.

Santa Barbara held San Marcos to three-and-out and got the ball back on its 39. On first down, Cunningham burst through the middle of the line, made a quick cut to his right and then his to left, and ran 61 yards for his third touchdown of the night.

He scored his fourth touchdown on an 11-yard run after a clutch 27-yard pass from Ramos to Emilio Gonzalez on a 3rd-and-21.

San Marcos held Cunningham to just 19 yards in the first half.

“We completely stuffed the run in the first half,” San Marcos coach Dale Perizzolo said. “They came out in the second half and kind of caught us on our heels. We weren’t ready for it and that kind of shocked us a little bit.”

San Marcos quarterback Wes Ghan-Gibson looks to Isai Hernandez (88) across the middle for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Down 35-14, the Royals appeared to be done. But Andrew Thayer brought them back to life when he returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown with 10:56 left in the fourth quarter. It was his third kickoff return for a touchdown this season.

“That guy is so blazing fast, they had two free safeties who still couldn’t tackle the kid. He runs hard. We changed it up (on the kickoff return). They were picking up that we were going right or left on them and we changed it up to the middle, and it worked for us.”


Santa Barbara was able to chew up some clock, and the Dons got an interception by Efren Sanchez to thwart a San Marcos drive in the last couple of minutes.

Matthew Gonzales made a huge interception of a Wesley Ghan-Gibson pass and returned it 61 yards for a touchdown to give the Dons a 14-0 lead in the first half.

“I just did what coach told me, I got the pick and I never ran so fast in my life,” said Gonzales.

The Royals settled down and Ghan-Gibson led them on a long drive that stalled at the Santa Barbara 2. They faked a field goal attempt, with Thayer taking the snap and running around right end. He was driven out of bounds, short of the end zone, by Dons defenders Bradford Jellison and Ernesto Valle-Arroyo.

The Royals would end up getting good field position as they forced the Dons to punt from their 10.

Glover was the workhorse on the 55-yard drive, and he scored on 12-yard run to get the Royals back in the game at 14-7.

San Marcos got good field position again after a 14-yard Santa Barbara punt. Glover broke off a 15-yard run on first down to put the ball at the Santa Barbara 26. Three plays later, Ghan-Gibson hit Isai Hernandez over the middle for a 24-yard touchdown pass.

At that point, it was anybody’s game.

Santa Barbara won its third straight and is 4-3 overall and 1-0 in Channel League. San Marcos falls to 1-7, 0-2.


Santa Barbara 14 0  14  7 — 35

San Marcos  0  14  0  7 — 21

First quarter

SB—Cunningham 5 run (Medina kick), 6:07

SB—M. Gonzales 61 interception return (Medina kick), 4:40

Second quarter

SM—Glover 12 run (Godinez kick), 5:44

SM—Hernandez 24 pass Ghan-Gibson (Godinez kick), 2:22

Third quarter

SB—Cunningham 4 run (Medina kick), 8:58

SB—Cunningham 61 run (Medina kick), 7:09

Fourth quarter

SB—Cunningham 11 run (Medina kick), 11:14

SM—Thayer 97 kickoff return (Godinez kick), 10:56