SANTA MARIA — It’s not lost on the Santa Maria Cougars that today’s non-district bout against Lyford will be a challenge, but they’re looking at it as more of an opportunity.
The Cougars are 2-1 and riding a two-game win streak into Bulldog Stadium for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff. The Lyford Bulldogs, also 2-1, are looking to bounce back from last week’s loss.
Santa Maria’s young squad features just six seniors and not much experience since its 2020 season lasted one game. But coach Israel Gracia is happy with the growth the Cougars have made and thinks they’re trending in the right direction ahead of their biggest test yet.
“Little by little, they’re growing up. I’m very pleased with where we’re getting to,” Gracia said. “Lyford’s going to be a whole different animal. Lot of good athletes over there, they’re very well-coached and they’re a good football team. It’s going to be a very, very good test for us. This is a signature game we have to play if we want to get noticed. We’re going to take the opportunity to try and get ourselves a little respect out there.”
Offensively, the Cougars have had success moving the ball and scoring both in the air and on the ground. They’re able to make adjustments depending on what the opposing defense gives them, and Gracia credited junior quarterback Chris Ibarra’s decision-making skills for spearheading Santa Maria’s success.
Ibarra prides himself in being a dual-threat quarterback. He has accumulated 392 yards and seven touchdowns passing and rushed for 143 yards. He’s expecting to see “a lot of blitzing” from the Bulldogs and thinks the Cougars are ready for the challenge and to “show everybody we can play.”
“I like doing both, whatever’s there I’ll do it,” Ibarra said. “I think I’ve done good, but I can do better. I’m teaching everybody, even the receivers because I don’t just play quarterback, so I show them how to do things. We’ve got a lot better.”
Helping Ibarra lead the offense is running back/receiver Esiah Gracia. The sophomore coach’s son has “come into his own” as the go-to weapon for the Cougars. Esiah Gracia boasts 238 rushing yards, 232 receiving yards and eight total touchdowns. He quickly praised his teammates for aiding his eye-catching performances.
“It’s been a big responsibility, but I feel like I can handle it. But I wouldn’t be able to do it with anyone but these guys,” Esiah Gracia said. “The team has been working. Our O-line has been a very big part of this offense. I’m only running the ball. They’re blocking for me to perfection, and I feel like if the O-line can hold up against Lyford, I think we’ll have a good chance.”
On the defensive side, the junior linebacker duo of Jordan Ramirez and Mark Rodriguez has been setting the tone for Santa Maria. Rodriguez is the No. 2 running back and handles kicking duties. Ramirez leads the team in tackles and sacks.
“Jordan just goes hard every play. He’s a very energetic kid, and having him on the field is a plus for us. He’s exciting to watch,” Israel Gracia said.
Ramirez said the Cougars’ defense has been working hard and focusing on pass protection ahead of the matchup with Lyford. He’s excited to go up against a hard-hitting team and believes chemistry will give Santa Maria an edge.
“It’s all about the bond we’ve got. We’re a small school, small team, and we have a bond. The closer we are, the better we understand how we play,” Ramirez said. “I just play the game with my family, that’s what I call them, my brothers. I like to hit people, I like to hit hard, so I want to teach them how to hit, too. … I’m pretty sure we’ve got this game. A win definitely will bring up our confidence, give our team a little jump. We just have to try really hard.”
The Cougars have some confidence and are feeling good heading into the game, and Ibarra hopes their fans will “come out and watch us play.” Santa Maria’s stadium is under construction, so the team hasn’t played in front of a home crowd, but having that support can help it chase that signature win.
“We have a little momentum, for sure. But Lyford is a tough team. We can’t take them lightly at all,” Esiah Gracia said. “It would mean a lot, because Santa Maria is a small town and everybody looks down on us. So, if we can beat a team like Lyford, it would definitely be an accomplishment.”