Down 6-0 just seconds after kickoff, the Escalon Cougars fell behind early but battled back and brought home football’s blue banner.
The squad came away with a 41-27 victory over Hilmar on Saturday afternoon, Nov. 30 to claim the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division 6 title. The game was hosted at Lincoln High School in Stockton.
Escalon won the toss and deferred, head coach Andrew Beam opting to kick off to the Trans-Valley League rival Yellowjackets.
It didn’t take long for Hilmar to cash in, using a reverse on the kickoff return for an 88-yard scoring strike on the first play of the game.
“We blocked the PAT but it was not the way we wanted to start,” Beam admitted.
Not to be outdone, the Cougars got the score back on their first possession with a strong return by Colton Panero, chunks of yardage on the ground from Luke Anderson, and a first down catch by Panero from quarterback Ty Harris. Then the ball got into the hands of Kaden Christensen for an 18-yard touchdown and Brayan Barrientos added the point after, putting Escalon up 7-6 with 8:47 to play in the first quarter.
It was a frantic pace for the opening frame – Hilmar got the ball back and struck again, this time on a 53-yard slant pass and kick, going up 13-7.
“We then went three and out and then after the punt, Hilmar went on a wheel route for the touchdown,” said Beam.
With the point after, the top seeded Cougars quickly found themselves in a 20-7 hole with 4:51 still to play in the first quarter.
But a patented Escalon drive, capped by a 5-yard touchdown run from Anderson, kick good, ate up a few minutes and got the Cougars to within 20-14 with 1:28 left in the first.
“It was so fast paced in the first 10 minutes, with 34 points scored, we weren’t able to breathe,” Beam explained.
Second quarter action saw Christensen grab an interception to stop a Hilmar fourth down conversion attempt but the ensuring Cougar drive stalled as well. Hilmar then hurt themselves with some penalties and Escalon got the ball in good field position on a bad snap on the Yellowjacket punt. Driving, then going for it on fourth down and short, Anderson punched the ball in for the score. With the kick by Barrientos, the Cougars had the lead at 21-20 with just over two minutes left in the half.
Both teams were called on some penalties once Hilmar got the ball back but the Yellowjackets stayed the course and converted on a 36-yard touchdown pass into the end zone as time expired, Adding the kick, the Cougars went into the locker room down 27-21 at the half.
“We had to control the pace of the game,” Beam said of the strategy talk at halftime. “We knew we had to slow this thing down, we knew if we could settle in and play our game, control the line of scrimmage, we were going to be okay.”
Even giving up the go ahead score as time wound down in the first half, Beam said his team believed.
“This team has the mental fortitude and the fight,” Beam pointed out. “That last play, right before half, I’m not sure we have had teams in the past that could have come back from that.”
Escalon knew they were getting the ball to open the second half, though, and it was a determined squad that came out of the locker room.
With huge crowds on both sides of the field, there was plenty of support for the two TVL rivals.
“I told the kids, if you’re a competitor, if you’ve got any fight in you, this is what you love,” noted Beam.
The Cougars came out with a “good, old-fashioned Escalon drive,” the coach said, eating up more than five minutes of the third quarter and ending with a touchdown pass from Harris to Panero, going in on a catch and run. The kick was no good but the TD drew the Cougars even with Hilmar, 27-27.
From there, it was the purple and gold that took over the game, scoring two more touchdowns and keeping Hilmar out of the end zone the entire second half.
Escalon was driving at the end of the third, big plays a 27-yard run by Christensen and a first down scramble from Harris. Early in the fourth, it was Christensen who capped the drive with a 6-yard touchdown, the kick again was no good, but it put the Cougars in lead, 33-27.
Kaidence Trejo picked off a Hilmar pass on the next possession and his team cashed in, Anderson running for a first down and Christensen adding the 9-yard touchdown run, plus Harris converting the 2-point attempt to Christensen for a 41-27 lead with 2:28 to go.
“We had four possessions in the second half and scored on the first three; we were able to take a knee on the fourth,” Beam said. “Hilmar had only three possessions.”
Second half keys were the up the middle running by Anderson and the Trejo interception that set up the final Cougars TD.
“Kudos to our offensive line and coach Cowan, the linemen up front and the tight ends made the difference,” Beam added. “Luke, Kaden and Colton, they made some big time plays, the offensive line was just phenomenal, Ty Harris had an outstanding game, made some good decisions.”
Anderson had 24 carries for 119 yards, Christensen had 22 carries for 149 yards. Harris connected on 7-of-8 pass attempts for 98 yards.
Defensively, Christensen and Trejo had the interceptions, while the front of Jacob Walden, Damien Tom, David Camacho and Demetrius Teixeira anchored the effort and Eli Lattig earned kudos for his play at the cornerback spot. Panero had eight tackles.
“Just giving my offense back the ball,” Trejo said of his well-timed pick. “At halftime, coach Beam told us, after everything that went wrong, we were only down by six. I knew (after the interception) that we would go get that score.”
Jacob Walden, an emotional leader for the team, said earning the Section champion title is something he will always treasure.
“It’s possibly the best I’ve ever felt,” he admitted. “The last two years, losing to Hilmar, then getting down by two scores, this team tackled adversity; that was the difference.”
Christensen agreed that, with the Yellowjackets ending Escalon’s season the last two years, there was some sweet revenge.
“Keeping our composure, slowing it down, that was the game plan,” Christensen said of the turnaround for the Cougars in the second half. “We just needed to play Escalon football.”
There was celebration, the presentation of the championship hats and a coveted blue banner, the Division 6 title coming back home to Escalon.
“It’s a relief, there’s excitement, joy, all the emotions packed into one,” Beam said of earning his first Section title as a head coach. “I’m very happy for this group of seniors, they are very special.”
He also said the team gained inspiration from the varsity volleyball girls, which won its first ever Section title this season.
“I remember seeing the hats they were wearing at the Sports Awards Night, Section champions,” Beam said, “and knew we wanted to get there.”
Next, the Cougars travel to Chico for a NorCal game, taking on host Pleasant Valley in a 6 p.m. contest on Saturday, Dec. 7.