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Cougar Gridders Get Stung by Hilmar
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On their first possession of the night, Hilmar gave notice that they meant business.

Scoring after a methodical march down the field, the host Yellowjackets took a 7-0 lead on Escalon with 7:46 to play in the first quarter Friday night. They made it a 14-0 advantage with just a few ticks of the clock remaining in the first quarter and the quick start put Escalon on its heels.

They rebounded with a solid second half however, and fell just short in their final drive of the night, losing to Hilmar by a 26-20 decision.

"That's a game I've got to believe made us a better team," said coach Mark Loureiro. "That's the first big, big game we've been in and it was good to see us adjust, the kids gave a tremendous effort and we won the second half."

Early on, the Cougars had no answer for - and virtually no defense against - outstanding junior quarterback Nathan Costa. The cool-under-pressure QB found a way to find his man even when the Cougars broke through to harass him. And, if all his men were covered, Costa simply tucked it in and ran.

"He threw for 246 yards and ran for 71," said Loureiro. "He hurts you on both sides of the ball."

Offensively, the Cougars were just as stymied in the early going, failing to get anything on track.

"They were bringing extra guys, they were blitzing, we were getting overpowered up front," Loureiro noted. "We had a hard time blocking on offense, they had five sacks and a number of hurries on us."

The in-your-face Hilmar attack kept Escalon off balance throughout the first quarter, as the visiting Cougars punted on their first possession, their second and their third.

The Cougars did manage a first down play as they took the kickoff from Hilmar to start the second quarter after the late touchdown from the Yellowjackets. A short pass completion and a rushing play made it look as though Escalon might get something going but a fumble - recovered by Hilmar - stopped the drive. The teams then traded a few possessions, and it was Marcus Savage who helped turn the tide for Escalon. He recovered a Hilmar fumble with 3:31 to play in the first half and returned it 32 yards for the score. Chris Diniz kicked the extra point and Escalon closed to within 14-7.

"Marcus's score slowed the pace of the game and that was a big time play for us," said Loureiro. "At that point, they were rolling and we were on our heels, that got us back in the game."

With a one touchdown lead late in the first half, Hilmar took the kickoff and again mounted a drive that put them back in the end zone, scoring with just under a minute to play. There was no extra point but the late touchdown gave Hilmar some breathing room again, leading 20-7.

"Defensively, I thought we covered pretty good, what we didn't do in the secondary was we didn't tackle well," Loureiro explained. "They just broke our tackles, they were turning a 6-yard gain into a 13-yard gain and when we were down 14-0, it was a major concern."

The squad righted themselves in the second half, though, the Cougars coming out with a much more determined attitude. They hung with Hilmar in the third quarter, neither team scoring in that frame. But the Yellowjackets appeared to put the game out of reach, scoring on the opening play of the fourth quarter. With just five seconds off the clock, Hilmar had a 26-7 lead. The point after attempt was blocked.

What looked like an insurmountable lead to the crowd simply looked like a challenge to the Cougars.

They took the kickoff from Hilmar and within a roughly two-minute span, found the end zone with a rushing play, a couple of big pass plays - one to Steve Gentry and one to Jordan Ramirez - with quarterback Andrew Beam then connecting with Gentry on a 21-yard touchdown toss. Diniz kicked the extra point to make it 26-14.

The kickoff from Diniz went into the end zone for a touchback, putting Hilmar at the 20-yard line with 9:46 to play. With the Cougars putting some pressure on the offense, Hilmar was hurried and had two incomplete passes and a rush for no gain on that possession, punting it away with 8:47 to play.

Escalon took the ball and made it a game, with a 48-yard scoring strike from Beam to Ramirez on the first play from scrimmage after a fair catch by Savage on the punt. A bad snap on the point after attempt resulted in no point, but with 8:30 to play, Escalon brought it back to a one-score game, trailing by just a 26-20 margin.

Hilmar tried to get back in the end zone on their next possession but again the Escalon defense turned it up a notch and a key sack by Anthony Oste and a delay of game penalty against the Yellowjackets kept them pinned deep. They turned the ball over on downs to Escalon with just 1:51 to play and the Cougars gathered all their weapons for the final drive. The effort saw a pass completion, a facemask penalty that gave the Cougars additional yardage, back-to-back sacks and then a spike of the ball by Beam on third down with time running out. That gave the Cougars one final play from the 32-yard line, a fourth down throw from Beam to Gentry. But the ball was caught by Gentry at the 4-yard line and the Yellowjackets on the coverage were there to meet him and stopped him short of the end zone on the final play of the game, preserving the 26-20 win for Hilmar.

"The most important thing," Loureiro told his players in their first post-game huddle following a loss, "is that you were showing pride until the last second. We just sent that team a message for the second time around, they don't want to see you again."

Loureiro bolstered the troops, highlighting their second half play after falling behind early.

"We could've rolled over and died or come back and played like men," he said of trailing 14-0. "We need to carry this momentum into next week. They know they got out of here alive, this was a way for us to grow up. You played like real Cougars tonight."

Lineman Mike Sawyer, back in the lineup after sitting out a couple of weeks with a knee injury, said the squad found their resolve during the halftime break.

"We came out with a little more heart," he said. "You never give up."

Jordan Ramirez figured heavily into the contest, pulling down a touchdown pass and making a couple of other key receptions.

"I got to step up and I gave it everything I've got," he said of the effort. "I knew I had to leave it all out on the field, I think we stepped up and played like a family, we trusted each other and relied on everybody to do their job."

Though they fell short in the final score, Loureiro said the Cougars played as best a half of football this season in the second half against Hilmar as they have all year. The tight game, he said, made them better, forced them to push themselves harder.

"I was real happy with the positive attitude," Loureiro said, adding that the players were upbeat in the locker room following the game and are already looking forward to getting back on the field against Ripon.

For the game, Ramirez had four catches for 134 yards and a touchdown, Gentry had seven catches for 119 yards and a touchdown. Gus Arzac was the leading rusher with 14 carries for 46 yards.

"Those were tough yards," Loureiro said. "And Ramirez really gave us a lift, he's got some good speed."

This week, the Cougars will focus on their offense, getting more protection from the front line to allow Beam a chance to do his work.

Defensively, the squad was solid at Hilmar with eight tackles from Arzac, six from Jesse Jimenez, one from Gentry, five tackles and two sacks from Oste. Jason Chandley had an interception.

Loureiro said the best part of the game was seeing the Cougars mount the second half comeback, refusing to leave quietly.

"We hit a couple of big plays, we started believing in ourselves," he said. "It went right down to the last play of the game."

Coaches, players and fans alike were all disappointed with the clock, however, as several seconds were lost in the game when timekeepers continued to let the clock run when it should have been stopped. That happened on more than one occasion but Loureiro said there's very little a team can do about that, having to just accept it and move on.

"The kids felt good about their effort," he pointed out. "There was a feeling that there's a lot of fight in us yet."

Escalon will travel to Ripon for another key Trans-Valley League match on Friday, taking on the Indians.