The last time a football game was played on Engel Field, it was December of 2019.
It was the state Division 4A championship game and, with a huge margin of victory, the Escalon Cougars were crowned state champions.
They returned to the field on Saturday night, April 10 and faced off with a familiar foe – Ripon – to celebrate a ‘homecoming’ for players, families and a small allotment of fans allowed in to see the game. Ripon was the only team that the Cougars lost to during the 2019 season.
This time, the host Cougars earned a 10-7 win; see story and photos in Sports, Page A10.
But more than just a game, football is part of the culture of Escalon and, since it was Spring Break week from school this past week, there was plenty of time for practices, watching game films and, as has become the custom over the years, the players were treated to some good meals.
Traditionally, parents of the varsity football players join forces to host a local pre-game meal before each home game of the season. For away games, the parents pack meals for the players to eat on the way back home.
This week, with cooperation from families and local businesses, the varsity players got a meal every day of the week. That included the early Saturday afternoon pre-game meal, served up at the city’s Community Center Park pavilion.
The game was moved from Friday night to Saturday to allow Escalon and Ripon to play, as Ripon was just getting players back from COVID quarantine.
Before they suited up for the kickoff, however, the Escalon varsity players gathered at the Community Center for a pre-meal prayer, led by Eli Lattig, one of this year’s team captains. They then went down the line to heap their plates with seasoned tri-tip, garlic potatoes, Caesar salad, rolls, cookies and drinks.
“Our community is great,” Lattig said. “The support we had, from our parents and the community this week, was just great and we all just appreciate it, we appreciate them.”
Even better, he said, the team was able to come away from the Saturday night game victorious.
“We had to work hard in practice, stay focused,” Lattig explained, adding that they wanted to right the “one wrong” from last season. When the final horn sounded, that wrong had been righted, with the Cougar win over the Indians.
Parents helping set up the dinner on Saturday afternoon agreed that keeping the tradition alive, even amidst the COVID restrictions, has been an important part of a very unusual, very short football season. It was to be a five-game campaign, with Escalon moving into the Valley Oak League for this year. They lost to Oakdale and then went on quarantine, coming out of it in time to play Ripon, a game they won. They are scheduled to play Sierra of Manteca this Friday, April 16.
Following the game on Saturday night, players were happy to have avenged the loss.
“Revenge feels good,” admitted senior Logan Webster. “We thought it would be a war for sure, they know our offense really well since we play each other in the TVL.”
The Cougars, though, had just a little bit more than Ripon in the end.
“It felt amazing,” said sophomore Owen Nash, who had a career night with six catches for 173 yards. “Words just can’t explain it; football has been my life since I was eight years old and this just feels great.”
“I think we were very motivated,” agreed fellow sophomore Matthew Baptista, who pulled in a pair of interceptions.
Every Cougar is aware of the intense rivalry with Ripon and junior Tyler Medina made the most of his opportunities on the night, including getting the game-winning interception to cut short Ripon’s final drive.
“That was my zone,” he said of covering the intended receiver. “I just had to get there.”
And for senior Luke Anderson, a key member of the championship team in 2019, the victory couldn’t have been any sweeter.
“I couldn’t ask for a better welcome back to Engel Field,” Anderson said. “We fought hard and I’m proud of the team. I also think Escalon has the best fans in the area, they are loyal, they are supportive and I am happy to be playing football again.”