Hundreds of Santa Maria High School graduates dug into their closets and pulled out an article of clothing that hadn't seen the light of day in some time. 

Just about every piece was the same.

A red jacket with white leather sleeves.

Some had last names embroidered on the back, others just had patches on the front.

Yes. The letterman jacket, a telling indicator of school spirit, made its triumphant return to Ralph Baldiviez Stadium Saturday night.

Thousands of proud Santa Marians, most of them SMHS graduates, filled the on-campus venue to cheer on the Saints as they played in the first ever CIF Southern Section football championship game held in the city, hosting Big Bear.

A few hundred wore their red letterman jackets and though the Saints lost, Big Red was definitely on display Saturday night. 

Alex Cardiel, class of 1967, made quite the journey to return to his alma mater.

"I live in San Diego, but when I heard that we were in the CIF championship, I just got in the car and got my butt up here," Cardiel said. 

When Cardiel attended Santa Maria High, he had grown accustomed to taking pride in Saints athletics.

"I lived in the times when we always beat everybody," said Cardiel, who wrestled at Santa Maria. "We did good in every sport, wrestling, basketball, football. Everything. It was kind of weird to have it go the way it did after that."

Santa Maria was a juggernaut in the 1960s and ’70s. That era of dominance lasted through the late 1980s. But in the 1990s and for much of the 2000s, that changed.

Santa Maria's football team would win one or two games a season. That changed the last two years. The Saints went 9-5 this year. They won five games last year. That's about a decade worth of wins for the Saints of the 1990s and 2000s.

Cardiel's brother-in-law is Stan Domingues, who also attended the game in his Class of 1973 letterman jacket. Domingues was a captain on the 1972 team that made it to the CIF title game. The Saints would advance to a championship game twice more in the ’80s, in 1984 and 1988.

Then came the lean years. The Saints made the playoffs just twice from 1989 through 2016. The 1994 Saints somehow made the postseason with a 1-9 record and actually shocked top-ranked Culver City in an upset win in the first round. The Saints wouldn't qualify for the postseason again until 2001, when they lost in the first round at Thousand Oaks.

Another playoff berth wouldn't come until this season.

Despite all that, a few Santa Maria High grads and current students stuck with the football team, consistently attending games and other athletic events. 

But nothing like Saturday night.

Erik Ramos, a more recent graduate and member of the 2016 class, attended almost any event he could during his high school days and even after them.

"It wasn't a good feeling because I'm a big football guy," said Ramos, who played varsity basketball for the Saints. "I would come to every game, but it wasn't fun because I was leaving at halftime of every game. There was no point in staying."

On Saturday, Ramos was early, the first fan sitting in the bleachers, wearing his red letterman jacket. Ramos said he knew the football program and athletics overall were going to turn around at the school, eventually.

"Every program goes through struggles," said Ramos, who is now an assistant basketball coach at Orcutt Academy. "This was a big drought for Santa Maria. This took a long time."

But things have certainly turned around at the school. The Saints won a CIF Southern Section divisional title in baseball in the spring.

They came up just a bit short on the gridiron Saturday night, gathering their runners-up plaque moments after the 37-23 defeat to Big Bear.

Saturday night's title game was the last chance for the Saints to win a Southern Section title. Starting next school year, the Saints and all the other Santa Maria Valley and San Luis Obispo County schools will move to the Central Section.

But don't expect former Saints to mothball those letterman jackets just yet. Judging by Saturday's event, Santa Maria alums will be wearing them on a more regular basis.

Joe Bailey is the sports editor at Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Contact him with tips and story ideas at jbailey@leecentralcoastnews.com or (805) 739-2239. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jbaileysmsports

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