It was truly the tale of two halves on Friday night.
The Escalon Cougars found their offense sputtering, their defense a little too shaky … and they were looking at a 13-0 deficit at the half.
But a challenge from their coach – and a determination from deep within – saw the varsity football team find a way back. Three unanswered touchdowns in the second half lifted Escalon to a 21-13 opening week win in Trans-Valley League play on the road at Hughson on Sept. 17. (See story, additional photos in Sports, Page A8.)
Hughson came in as a favorite for the league title and Escalon head coach Andrew Beam said it was a team he was worried about, a team of Huskies that has been successful their entire high school career, at all levels.
But there is something to be said for Cougar pride, as the players, their coaches and fans found out.
Putting aside the first half jitters that left them trailing by two scores, the Cougars methodically controlled the flow of the game in the second half. They started with a lengthy drive that resulted in a touchdown, got a defensive stop and scored again before the end of the third quarter. That gave them a 14-13 lead, buoying their spirits and putting some doubt in the minds of the host Huskies.
“It gives me chills,” Beam told his players in the celebratory post-game huddle in Hughson. “The type of effort we had to have … it was not fun in that first half but I told you, trust in what we do. Do you see the importance of being able to run that ball?”
Beam said using the tried and true ground and pound game, the Cougars got chunks of three, four or five yards a carry, took time off the clock and controlled the tempo of the game in the third and fourth quarters.
“I’m darn proud of you,” he said.
Senior JP Lial accounted for two rushing touchdowns on the night.
“It was great,” he said of coming from behind to get the win in the opening week of TVL play. “We knew we had to step up and play our game, we got our momentum going as a team.”
Scoring the first touchdown of the night for Escalon was EJ Lewis, the senior hauling in a pass in the end zone.
“Defense, the second half, it was all defense,” he said of what turned the tide.
He also noted the halftime speech from the coach didn’t hurt.
“He was mad at us but it pumped us up,” Lewis said. “In that second half, we were the better team.”
Credited with a huge stop on a Hughson fourth down play that essentially sealed the win, junior Ryker Peters couldn’t have been happier.
“Standing here, holding this belt,” he said, hoisting the Ball-Out Belt as this week’s recipient, “there’s so much tears, so much blood to get here.”
And getting to the win was just the first step in what the Cougars see as a long range plan, making a run at the TVL title and getting into the playoffs.
“We knew they were going to run the football and, down 13-0, we knew we had to fight back,” said quarterback Donovan Rozevink.
He credited the defense of the Cougars with helping to spark the offense, with the Huskies shut out over the third and fourth quarters while the Escalon offense got back on track.
Beam said following the Homecoming loss to Kimball on Sept. 10, the team did not go to the sideline and sing the alma mater, something Beam had instituted when he took over as head coach.
“That was a mistake on my part,” the coach confessed of the Homecoming Week no-show.
It was something he decided to rectify, win or lose, at Hughson.
“We called on our players to sing it in practice,” the coach noted, with the team memorizing and practicing the song throughout the week.
And when the moment came, they were ready.
After being able to take the last few snaps and kneel down for the victory, the players and cheerleaders brought the fans to their feet, all joining in the singing.
The Cougars have a bye week, with no game on Sept. 24, having a chance to recover and recharge, preparing to host longtime rival Hilmar in a Friday night, Oct. 1 contest at Engel Field.