One of the biggest moments in school history has arrived.
Santa Maria High is hosting a CIF championship football game.
The Saints will play in their fifth championship game Saturday night, with kickoff slated for 7:45 p.m.
If everything goes Santa Maria's way, the Saints will be celebrating the school's first-ever divisional football championship and begin preparing for the state playoffs.
It's been awhile
Santa Maria has been here before, but not in quite some time. In fact, it's been 29 years. The 1988 team lost to San Marino in the Division VII title game by a score of 19-11. The Saints also advance to a CIF Southern Section championship game in 1984, 1972 and 1927.
Though the Saints have been here before, this is uncharted territory for most everyone currently affiliated with the program.
In the five seasons before head coach Dan Ellington arrived on the campus situated near Stowell Avenue and Broadway in the heart of Santa Maria, the Saints won a total of seven games from 2010 to 2014 and went just 4-35 in the four years before Ellington took over in 2015.
Santa Maria is 9-4 this season, a year after going 5-5 in Ellington's second season leading the Saints. They're on a seven-game win streak, with seven victories in the last seven weeks. It took the Saints five years to get seven wins before Ellington arrived and the Saints moved to the Northern League and out of the Los Padres League.
Their Northern League championship was the first outright league title for Santa Maria since that 1988 team made it to the divisional final. Their first-round win over Carpinteria three weeks ago ended a winless streak in the playoffs that started in 1994.
So, the Saints may have been in this position before, but it's been awhile.
Big Bear's history
Big Bear on the other hand, has been to a CIF Southern Section divisional title game three times before.
The Bears won it all for the first time in 1992, beating Bishop High School 13-12. They won it again in 2006, claiming the East Valley title with a 42-21 win over San Jacinto.
The Bears lost to Tehachapi 42-20 for the Inland Division title in 1980.
2-4 after September
On Sept. 29, it didn't appear the Saints would have any chance of getting this far.
After a 49-12 loss at Santa Ynez, they were just 2-4 on the season.
"Those games taught us a lot about ourselves," Ellington said this week. "We're a very different team now. We're much more confident. That Nipomo win really built our confidence."
After that September loss to the Pirates, a big boost was just around the corner. The Saints, decimated by injuries, enjoyed their bye week.
Now the Saints are healthy and on a roll. They haven't lost since.
"These kids have always been fighters, they've battled through a lot of things in their lives," Ellington said. "This is just football for them."
Past determines the present
Ellington feels the Saints are here in part because of the struggles the program has had in the past, especially just missing out on the playoffs after going 5-5 in 2016.
"We felt last year that if we had gotten in we would have made a run," Ellington said. "But there's a purpose to everything and right now we are right where we should be. It's because these kids kept with it and they believed in themselves. They had a chip on their shoulder and they kept that attitude. These kids have their own personalities and they're competitors."
Santa Maria was 2-8 in Ellington's first season with the Saints. They went 1-3 in the Northern League. Last year, they were one win away from a league championship and an automatic playoff berth in the season-finale against Nipomo. The Titans scored late for a 19-14 win.
This year, the Saints were down 19-0 to Nipomo. They went on to win that game 41-25.
Sainthood means brotherhood
Ellington has spent a whole lot of time around this group of players and there are 21 seniors listed on the roster.
These players know each other better than they know members of their families. They've spent more time together, too.
That builds some interesting team dynamics.
"They like to rag on each other," Ellington admitted. "They're like brothers. That's what they are. That's what we call ourselves. Brothers. Family. They'll get on each other, they'll push each other in practice.
"If some guy is not doing his job; he drops a football or misses a block or whatever the case may be. They'll get on them. It's a competition in practice. A guy like (senior running back) Bobby Ruiz is always cracking jokes and putting you on blast if you don't watch it. It's just fun to coach these guys. They have a lot of good personalities."
Coaching is teaching
Ellington has mastered his craft in his three years at Santa Maria, where he's also a special education teacher. His teaching career has helped him develop his coaching skills as well.
"I've been coaching for a long time, but you still learn things throughout the years. Here at Santa Maria, it's not really different than any place else," Ellington said. "You've got to be consistent with the kids as far as discipline. Show them that you love them and we've done a lot of that this year and it's paid off."
Ellington has learned to explain things in ways his players can easily comprehend, something he's learned in the classroom.
"You break things down so that they can understand," Ellington said. "I remember in my young days as coaching, I thought that if I yelled at them louder and more often that they'd play better. But it's teaching. It's just an extension of the classroom and if someone doesn't understand, you have to ask them why and ask what they need.
"A lot of players are afraid to ask questions. But they need to understand that the whole point is to get better. But we've done a lot of that. There's a lot of teaching on the football field."
Significance of a victory
A Santa Maria win Saturday night would have a big historical impact.
According to the CIF records, no Santa Maria Valley 11-man football team has won a CIF championship.
Atascadero defeated St. Joseph for the Desert Mountain Division title in 1986 by a score of 26-18. Atascadero hosted that game.