They didn’t have too much time to enjoy it.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing … it means there’s more football to be played.
Escalon’s varsity Cougars came home with the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 5 football championship on Saturday night, Nov. 27. They defeated Trans-Valley League rival Hilmar in a thrilling 20-13 contest at St. Mary’s High School in Stockton to claim the blue banner. Sunday, they learned they would be heading to San Rafael High School for a NorCal Division 4-AA North contest against Marin Catholic.
“They are a powerhouse,” head coach Andrew Beam admitted. “They were the North Coast Section Division 2 champion, a private school in one of the wealthiest areas in the state.”
It’s called ‘competitive equity’ – Escalon, as a result of back-to-back Section titles (2019 and 2021, with no playoffs in 2020 due to COVID) was moved up; in effect, a double edged sword.
“For our kids to be respected by the CIF, that is a compliment,” Beam said.
But also a daunting task for the Cougars, who are nursing plenty of wounds from the physical battle with Hilmar, hoping to get some key players healthy in time for the 7:30 p.m. Friday night, Dec. 3 kickoff.
“They beat Central Catholic by 30 points last year; they were 42-7 winners against Cardinal Newman for their Section championship this year,” Beam added of Marin Catholic. “It’s going to be a heck of a battle.”
On Saturday night, once the clock had expired, Beam and his Cougars were able to enjoy the moment as they hoisted the blue banner and received their Section Champion ball caps, replacing their football helmets with the hats.
This year’s seniors were 1-9 as freshmen … the growth of the team through their high school years wasn’t something most saw coming. And it wasn’t until they were embarrassed at their own Homecoming by a rough and tumble Kimball team that they started to narrow their focus.
On the road to start the Trans-Valley League campaign the week after Homecoming at Hughson, Beam said the Huskies had proclaimed that it was “their time” and they did take a halftime lead on the Cougars. The challenge by coaches at halftime to the Escalon squad was answered by the players, who stormed back to walk off with the win at Hughson and haven’t looked back since.
They ran the table in the notoriously tough TVL. And they beat a pair of league opponents twice – Ripon and Hilmar – both in league play, then Ripon again in the Section semifinals, Hilmar in the final.
“We’re 8-0 against the TVL this season,” Beam said.
The coach and his players know that taking on Marin Catholic will be by far the toughest test they have ever faced.
“We’re going to go in and just fight and compete,” Beam vowed. “We could make a statement that would echo among the football halls of California. We’re going to give it all we’ve got.”
After the game in Stockton, the Cougar players, battered and spent, nevertheless found some stored energy to celebrate the Section title by running toward the stands, pumping up the crowd and singing the alma mater.
“This right here is the icing on top after winning TVL,” said senior Caden Gonsalves, who paced the defensive effort against Hilmar in the Section final with a dozen tackles to his credit. “What drives me is, my whole football career in high school, everyone told me I couldn’t do it, I’m too small and it just feels great to prove them wrong and be doing what I do every day on the football field.”
Though they had some early passing success on Saturday night, Gonsalves said they still needed to get back to traditional Cougar football in the second half to work the clock and deliver their smashmouth brand of play.
“That was really the key to our success, pounding the ball down their throats because they really couldn’t handle the physicalness,” Gonsalves said.
Matthew Baptista battled back from a semifinal game injury to suit up and get some hard-earned yards for the offense.
“It’s the Section championship so I had to push through and play for my team, for the town and get it done,” he said. “Total team effort, without every guy doing their job, we can’t get here.”
Junior Logan Anderson again played a key role for the Cougars, coming out with a strong second half effort despite hurting an ankle in the first half.
“It feels amazing. I mean I’ve been here before but last time (2019 as a freshman) I was just on the bench and I let my older brother celebrate that one, but this one’s mine, we earned this one,” Anderson said.
Up by just one touchdown at the half, it was the brotherhood of the EHS team that pushed them over the top, the junior said.
“We just have more heart, I think,” he explained. “We’re more of a team, we’re brothers. We’re a family so we stuck together, we pushed through.”
For junior Own Nash, pulling in some key receptions and helping his team to the Section crown was a perfect way to end Thanksgiving weekend.
“Just coming out more confident, we just came out, we had to limit the mistakes that we did,” he explained of tightening things up in the second half. “Defense wins championships.”
Nash also is happy that he can put on the uniform in December.
“That’s been the dream since August, in the summer, playing in December and now we’re doing it,” he said.
Senior JP Lial – a comeback story in his own right after knee surgery – took in the final touchdown of the game for Escalon, lifting them to the 20-13 edge.
“It felt great, I just knew I had to get it and there was nothing else to it,” he said. “I’m excited for another week of playing football.”
Senior Tyler Medina, one of this year’s captains, had two interceptions and a fumble recovery, forcing three Hilmar turnovers.
“It was just an honor and I’m super blessed that we got to play in this Section game,” said Medina. “I’m very proud of all of us together as a team.”
He also said one factor has been key for the team all season: resilience.
“Whatever happens, we just fight back until that final whistle blows and the clock goes out.”
Junior Ryker Peters, 23 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown, perhaps summed it up best, as this year’s squad brought the football program its 10th Section title.
“It’s Escalon tradition,” he said.