Big-time performance from Cunningham gives Dons Big-Game victory

Cheroke Cunningham - Santa Barbara High Football

Santa Barbara High’s Cheroke Cunningham dominated Friday’s Big Game against San Marcos. (Wade Carr Photos)

Cheroke Cunningham firmly etched his name into Big Game lore on Friday night as the Santa Barbara High senior scored five touchdowns in a 42-28 victory for the Dons over San Marcos.

Cunningham joins Bradlee Van Pelt as just the second player to ever win the Gary Blades MVP award twice.

“I felt like I was a lot more explosive tonight. Way more explosive,” Cunningham said, comparing tonight’s performance to his four-touchdown night in 2011.

A 12-yard scoring run on Santa Barbara’s second possession broke the ice for Cunningham. His next score came on an 82-yard punt return less than two minutes later. From there, Cunningham added a pair of three-yard TD runs and a 20-yarder.

A 1/2 yard kept Cunningham from a sixth TD in the fourth quarter. He stretched the ball across the goal line on a four-yard third-down run but the referee ruled the player down. Dons quarterback Brent Peus took it in behind an o-line that benefited from players returning from injury.

“It actually made a huge difference having those line guys back. And it was so exciting for ‘Roke to now have a healthy line to run behind and we saw what happened,” noted Dons head coach Doug Caines.

Cunningham agreed.

“It’s a whole team effort. I scored, but I could not have done it without my team.”

After having been shut out in their last game, the Dons said it felt great to get some of the frustration out.

“To finally see the potential actualized is just exciting,” Caines said. “And it couldn’t have come at a better time. This was a must win, I think everyone knows that.”

Santa Barbara's Jonah Iwanaga is on the receiving end of a pass from QB Brent Peus.

Santa Barbara’s Jonah Iwanaga is on the receiving end of a pass from QB Brent Peus.

Cunningham’s night overshadowed a standout showing from counterpart Esteban Alfaro. The San Marcos running back carried the ball 30 times and caught two passes, scoring all four San Marcos touchdowns while totaling 146 yards.

The Royals were never able to overcome an early deficit after falling behind 14-0 in the first quarter. San Marcos cut the lead to 28-21 in the second quarter and 34-28 in the fourth quarter, but the Royals never led.

“We couldn’t get the stop we needed to try and give ourselves the chance to tie it up,” said Royals head coach Anthony Linebaugh.

While Cunningham was tough to bottle up, the Dons also picked up huge chunks of yardage thanks to the arm of Peus. The sophomore QB didn’t throw a touchdown but completed 12-of-18 passes for 221 yards.

Linebaugh singled out Peus’ 58-yard completion to Jonah Iwanaga on 2nd-down-and-40 as making a difference. The Royals had just scored in the second quarter to make it 21-14 and penalties had backed the Dons up deep in their own territory. All of a sudden, the Dons scored once again three plays after Iwanaga made the catch.

“That one was a killer. That drive right there. That really hurt,” Linebaugh said.

Esteban Alfaro - San Marcos Royals Football

San Marcos’ Esteban Alfaro picked up some tough yards against the Dons on Friday. Alfaro scored all four of the Royals’ TDs.

Another tough break for the Royals came in the third quarter when San Marcos failed to put any points on the board after having 1st-and-goal on the 8-yard line. Santa Barbara’s Gabe Murillo made a nice solo tackle on 4th down.

“We were just a little bit off in terms of execution here and there,” Linebaugh said. “In a Big Game, even though it’s not a playoff game, it’s that playoff atmosphere. Small mistakes are magnified.”

While Santa Barbara can still earn a third-place tie in league with a win against Ventura next week, San Marcos’ season came to a close tonight with a 5-5 record.

“It’s just a great group of kids. I’m going to miss seeing them,” Linebaugh said.

The Dons won for the fourth straight year in the 54th meeting between the two crosstown rivals. The game will be televised by Cox 8 Sports once a day for the next week starting tomorrow and Sunday at 1:30 p.m.


Santa Barbara 14 14 6 8 – 42
San Marcos ?0 21 0 7 – 28


4:48 – SB: Cunningham 12-yard run (kick no good)
3:01 – SB: Cunningham 82-yard punt return (2-pt. conversion good)


10:46 – SM: Alfaro 6-yard run (kick good)
9:23 – SB: Cunningham 3-yard run (kick good)
5:00 – SM: Alfaro 1-yard run (kick good)
2:59 – SB: Cunningham 3-yard run (kick good)
1:22 – SM: Alfaro 1-yard run (kick good)


4:57 – SB: Cunningham 20-yard run (kick no good)


7:31 – SM: Alfaro 1-yard run (kick good)
4:15 – SB: Peus 1-yard run (2-pt. conversion good)