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Comeback Win Earns Share Of Crown For Cougars
Down 21-7 before the first quarter was over, things didn't look too promising for Escalon's varsity Cougars on Friday night.

But pride, grit and the sheer determination to get head coach Mark Loureiro his 200th career victory - not to mention a share of this year's Trans-Valley League title - pushed the football team further than some thought possible.

Capping an improbable second quarter with two scores in the final 16 seconds, the varsity Cougars parlayed a 28-21 lead at the half into a 40-21 victory over visiting Modesto Christian.

"I don't think the script could have been written any better," coach Loureiro said. "This was an amazing roller coaster ride."

It was billed as a battle and, at least in the first half, it lived up to that billing.

Modesto Christian came in fired up and had the Cougars reeling like an in-trouble prizefighter in the first quarter. Getting a chance to get back to their corner in between the first and second quarters, the Cougars did some regrouping, got focused and got back on track.

"Down 21-7 at the end of the first quarter, you had the feeling this game's getting away from us," admitted Loureiro.

Calling on his players to take better angles to the ball carrier on defense, Loureiro said he felt if they could "ride the storm out" and get another touchdown in before half, go in down 21-14, they had a fighting chance.

But the Cougars got that one touchdown back and more. After trimming the lead to 21-14, they came up with a huge play on a screen pass late in the quarter to tie the game at 21-21.

"All of a sudden, we made a stop and were able to get that last drive in," Loureiro said of going for the game-tying score. "We took a chance on second down, threw a screen pass, we've had that available but haven't used it, the kids did a great job and there was a frenzy at 21-all."

On the ensuing kickoff, with just a few seconds left in the half, Loureiro said he didn't want to give Modesto Christian any chance of having a huge return.

"We were just going to squib the kick," he explained.

But the squib hit a Crusader in the leg and bounced back to kicker Jason Diniz, who pounced on it for the fumble recovery. The ball is live when touched by a player from the receiving team.

With basically a free play left, Loureiro said he decided to gamble.

"After Jason recovers that, what do we have to lose?" he said.

Giving quarterback Spencer Franceschetti the nod to air it out, he threw a pass that Charlie McDonald pulled in, avoiding three defenders and causing the Crusaders to crash into each other as he stepped over them and into the end zone.

"When that happens it goes from crazy to bonkers," Loureiro said of the crowd reaction to the Cougars taking the lead.

Modesto Christian never did recover from the second period onslaught, unable to get back in the end zone. Escalon added two more touchdowns in the second half and came away with the 40-21 win.

"Their kids were dragging," Loureiro said of seeing Modesto Christian come back for the second half.

While their opponent was deflated, Loureiro said he could hear the crowd still buzzing with excitement as his team came out of the locker room at halftime, ready to go for the third and fourth quarters.

"Then the kids could start smelling the victory," he said.

Looking at films from the contest, Loureiro said his team lacked speed in the first quarter, and played tentatively at the start. Once Modesto Christian took the lead, it seemed to wake up the Cougars, as the group came together and collectively turned it up several notches for the second quarter and beyond.

"There were so many guys that made big plays and they played with desire and passion," Loureiro said. "The first guy you have to look at is Charlie McDonald, 21 carries for 226 yards and two touchdowns, one catch for 50 yards and a touchdown ... whenever we needed the tough yards, we went to Charlie."

Modesto Christian boasted its own weapons, specifically in quarterback Isaiah Burse and running back David Sjelin, who combined to give the Crusaders the early lead. But as the game wore on, it was the Cougars who had too many weapons, able to strike from the air as well as on the ground.

"The yards he gets after contact," Loureiro added of McDonald. "He just doesn't stop."

It was also a huge game for Franceschetti, who works on his passing game in practice but hasn't had to use it too much in competition. Until Friday night.

"He hasn't been asked to throw too much in a game but when you go against great teams, you have to have that," Loureiro said. "He was 8-for-12 for 211 yards and four touchdowns ... just spectacular numbers. The balls he threw were right on the money."

Pulling down one of those money passes was Danny Thompson, who got the Cougars to within 21-14 with a 66-yard reception in the second quarter.

"Danny has the ability to make the tough play," Loureiro said. "He brings a positive attitude to practice and the game, he had a 66-yard touchdown reception and a 35-yard reception for a touchdown, he got the crowd into it ... he's a fan favorite."

Escalon received the ball on Friday night and had a couple of first downs before fumbling the ball away on a third and seven play. Modesto Christian capitalized and Sjelin went in from 6 yards out with 7:16 to play in the first. With the kick, it was an early 7-0 lead.

Burse added the second touchdown of the night with 2:30 to play in the first quarter, a 3-yard QB keeper for the score. The kick after made it 14-0.

After a short return by Steve Silva on the kickoff, McDonald got the call and put on a burst of speed, eluding defenders in a 78-yard touchdown run. The kick by Diniz was good and with 2:11 left in the first quarter, it was 14-7.

Modesto Christian returned the favor, marching down the field and scoring on an 8-yard run with 42.6 seconds left in the frame. The kick was good and it was 21-7.

Defense played a big role in the second quarter, with Thomas Martin making a stop on a third and 9 for the Crusaders, forcing a punt when they were looking at a fourth and 13. With 5:23 to play in the half, the Cougars got the ball at the 34-yard line and, a play later, Franceschetti found Thompson for the 66-yard touchdown reception. The kick was good and the Cougars got the crowd on their side, trailing 21-14.

After trading possessions, the Cougars got the ball back with 1:07 to play. A completed pass to Thompson, a pass to Diniz and a rush by McDonald up the middle put the Cougars within striking distance at the 14-yard line. With 24.8 seconds left in the half, Loureiro took a time out and sent in the screen pass play.

Franceschetti found Diniz and the play worked to perfection, resulting in a touchdown. The kick after was good and with 15.8 seconds left, it was tied 21-21.

The subsequent kickoff by Diniz was the squib kick to avoid a big MC return. It bounced off the Crusaders and right to Diniz, who fell on it to recover it for the Cougars. With time for one play, Franceschetti threw to the triple-covered McDonald, who got the ball and the score for the go ahead touchdown.

Escalon left the field at halftime leading 28-21.

Second half scores included a 33-yard pass to Thompson with 1:09 to play in the third quarter, the kick was blocked, and a 24-yard run by McDonald to cap the scoring with 11:52 to go in the fourth, the kick was wide right. It gave Escalon a 40-21 win and Loureiro his 200th career coaching victory.

"The line did a great job," Loureiro added of his offensive unit. "If you're getting 503 yards, you know the blockers are doing their job."

Defensively, the Cougars had a slow start but there were plenty of heroes from the second quarter on.

"Tyler Ellisen, he left the field as Mr. Ellisen that night ... he had 14 tackles and three sacks, he made major plays for us, especially in the fourth quarter."

Inside linebackers Nick Largent (nine tackles) and Izzy Ruiz (eight tackles) got high marks, as well as outside linebacker Blake Nayer, who had six tackles and a fumble recovery, all in the second half.

"Two guys that were key, defensive ends Thomas Martin and Mike Gutierrez, they were able to corral Burse, they didn't make all the tackles but they funneled him to the guys that did," Loureiro explained of adjustments the team made after the first quarter. "They were doing their job."

They each had five tackles and Martin had two sacks, Gutierrez had one.

"Our secondary always plays well," added Loureiro. "Modesto Christian had 96 yards in the first quarter, then we just shut them down, they had 146 over the final three quarters.

"If you were at that game, you never would have thought we'd shut them out over the last three quarters."

The win assured Escalon a share of the Trans-Valley League title and clinched a first found playoff game at home. They can earn the title outright and secure home field advantage with a final game win over Ripon.

For the game with MC, Escalon had 292 rushing yards and 211 passing, with 39 rushing plays and 8-of-12 pass completions. They had 16 first downs and 503 yards of offense, with 11 penalties for 105 yards. They had one fumble and lost it.

Modesto Christian had 18 first downs, 348 total yards with 41 rushing plays for 162 yards and 10-of-20 pass completions for 186 yards. They fumbled twice and lost it, recoveries by Diniz and Nayer, and were penalized three times for 25 yards.

"Every game is a big game now," Loureiro said, working for the title and home field, staring with the Ripon contest on Friday night, 7:30 p.m. at Engel Field.