By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Cougars Fall Season Ends One Win Short Of Championship Game
When the final seconds ticked off the clock Friday night at Engel Field, the scoreboard showed something it hadn't all year ... the visitors score was higher than that of the Cougars.

Central Catholic came to town and thumped Escalon, 38-6, to take the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V semifinal game and punch their ticket to UOP. The Cougars, hampered by their own slow start, were handcuffed by the Raiders and held in check throughout the first half, trailing 31-0 at the break.

"I think we rode the horse as long as we could ride it," head coach Mark Loureiro said. "We got beat by a very good football team ... the thing about the playoffs is by the time it's over, only one team is going to be happy and all the others are sad."

And while there was sadness on the sidelines and in the crowd of Cougar supporters, Loureiro said the semifinal loss to Central can't take away from the accomplishments of this year's varsity team.

"This was a great season," Loureiro said. "When you step back away from this, it's a lot easier to absorb that loss Friday night because of what we did this season ... there were some exciting wins, a league championship, this was the seventh team in the history of the school to go undefeated in the regular season, these kids have nothing to hang their heads about."

With the line to get in through the gates still winding its way to the street just moments before kickoff, Memorial Stadium was filled to capacity. Things started off well, with the Cougars winning the toss and opting to kick, making sure they would get the ball to start the second half.

Jason Diniz did what he has done so many times this season, kicked it into the end zone, putting the Raiders at the 20-yard line to start their first drive of the game.

Central methodically marched down the field, however, converting on a handful of third down plays with pass completions on the way to a 6-yard run by T.J. Belton for a touchdown with 7:40 to play in the first quarter, With the kick after, it was an early 7-0 lead for the visitors.

Escalon went a quick three and out, giving the ball back, and Central capitalized again, getting good field position on the punt and needed only a few plays to get back in the end zone. This time, it was a catch by James Orth from 20 yards out, the kick was good and it was 14-0 with 3:45 to play in the opening quarter.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Cougars got out to the 27-yard line with the return by Danny Thompson but couldn't get much father, having to punt it away after another three and out series.

Near midfield on the punt, Central scored on a 52-yard pass play and added the kick for a 21-0 lead with 2:49 left in the first, shocking the home crowd into near silence as the roar grew from the visiting bleachers.

"Let's get something going on the "O" side," Loureiro told his team as they headed back out to take the kickoff. "The defense can't hang out there all night."

A strong run by Charlie McDonald and a charge up the middle by Izzy Ruiz gave Escalon its first first down of the night with 2:01 left in the opening quarter. Diniz then had a couple of short runs and a pass by Spencer Franceschetti to McDonald on a third and long was in and out of McDonald's hands as he was hit by a Central defender.

The Cougars were forced to punt and Central began another drive as the first quarter ended. They kept the ball and used a combination of rushing and passing plays to drive in for the score, on a 12-yard pass play with 5:57 to go in the half. The kick was good for a 28-0 lead.

It was another three and punt for the Cougars, who just could not get the offense going. Central nearly got another touchdown on their next possession, but Thompson broke up the pass play in the end zone and they settled for a 34-yard field goal, capping their scoring with 1:13 to play in the first half, going up 31-0.

Hoping to get something going before the half, the Cougars moved the ball a little but not enough to get within scoring range before the halftime whistle blew.

"When I talked to Roger (Central head coach Roger Canepa) after the game, he said he felt they played their best ball of the season in that first half," Loureiro said of the onslaught by Central through the first 24 minutes. "He said their defense played the best they had played all year ... credit them with making us not play well. What we were afraid of, their passing game, hurt us and they had a lot of athletes they threw at us."

Regrouping for the second half, the Cougars got the ball and tried to mount a drive, getting one first down in their offensive series before being hampered by a couple of penalties that resulted in a third and 15 at their own 26-yard line. After an incomplete pass, they were forced to punt, Central getting the ball back with 8:20 to play in the third quarter.

Escalon got their first break of the game on that Central possession, with Ruiz recovering a fumble near midfield with 5:10 to play. McDonald had a couple of runs, Diniz caught a pass for a first down, Ruiz bullied his way through the line and as the Cougars went for it on a fourth and two at the 11-yard line, McDonald was hit hard and the ball was jarred loose but recovered by Diniz at the 6-yard line, good for a first down. Another rush by Diniz got them to the two and Ruiz went in from there, scoring with 17 seconds left in the third. The point after attempt was no good but the Cougars were on the board, trailing 31-6.

"What we talked about at halftime was not quitting," Loureiro said. "We hadn't come this far in the season to just lay down and quit ... we said let's start by winning a quarter, then let's win a half.

"It may not be enough to win the game but it was enough to show them we could give them competition."

Senior Ruiz agreed that going out strong was crucial.

"They're a solid team and we prepared as good as we could," he said. "We came out in the second half and gave it as much as we had."

McDonald, still bothered by an injury but putting his heart and soul into the contest, said the slow start by Escalon made it difficult to get back in the game.

"We pretty much wanted to stop them on defense," he said of the goal in the second half. "We hadn't stepped up (in the first half) ... that's a great football team and we can't come out flat against teams like that."

Junior Travis Cardoza added that the seniors on this year's team showed great leadership and gave the juniors a standard to work toward, pushing them throughout the season.

"At the end, it's worth it," he said of the hard work. "It's for the town, it's for the team, we all play with heart and never give up."

Like they did in their opening round game against Calaveras, the Cougars got off to a slow start. Unlike last week, they couldn't come back.

"We came out slow and it killed us," admitted senior Thomas Martin, assessing the game. "The second half, we came out and showed what we have, played our hardest, every guy out there gave everything he had."

The final touchdown of the night came on an intercepted pass, on an option play, picked off as Escalon was driving for a score and returned 71 yards for a touchdown. With the kick after, it was 38-6 in favor of the Raiders, with 6:05 to play in the game.

"Let's go," Martin told his teammates, working his way up and down the sidelines. "Keep it up, a last few minutes of Cougar pride."

Neither team got on the board over the last six minutes and both teams ended the night at 11-1. The difference is Central moves on to UOP for the section championship game against Hilmar, while the Cougars hang up the cleats after a stellar run.

"We came out playing to win the second half," Danny Thompson said of the mindset after falling behind. "We were playing for Escalon pride."

Thompson added that this year's junior class showed great dedication and determination, working hard to make themselves into outstanding players.

"I couldn't be any more proud," he added, "having those guys on my team. I love every one of them and next year they'll have a tremendous team."

Loureiro said there were many standout efforts by players in their final game of the season. Thompson drew the unenviable task of guarding top receiver James Orth, while McDonald battled through his injury to help shore up the defense and provide some offensive spark.

"Izzy Ruiz ran hard, I was happy with the way Spencer competed," Loureiro noted. "At inside linebacker, Izzy led us in tackles with 14 and Nick Largent had 11. Thomas Martin on our defensive line, he had eight tackles, I was real happy with him."

Escalon ended the night with eight first downs to Central's 13, with 177 total yards of offense for Escalon, 314 for Central. Escalon had 32 rushing plays for 107 yards and completed three of 17 pass attempts for 70 yards. They had one fumble, none lost, and were penalized six times for 50 yards. Central had 29 rushing plays for 109 yards and completed 13-of-17 pass attempts for 205 yards, with two fumbles and two lost, seven penalties for 55yards.

Ruiz and Tyler Ellisen recovered the fumbles.

"Sometimes your pride is all you have left to play for," Loureiro said, with the Cougars stepped up and playing with pride in the second half.

Pointing to successes during the season, Loureiro noted that Dixon, an early season victim of the Cougars, is still in the Division IV playoffs, Patterson made it to the semifinal and Buhach Colony is a Division I school that the Cougars beat.

"Winning the (league) championship game against Modesto Christian, getting my 200th win, winning the league, the Ripon game, and who can top the drama of the Calaveras game? There were some outstanding individual efforts in those games and throughout the year.

"The juniors meshed well with the seniors and we got tremendous leadership out of our seniors. As coaches, we couldn't be any more proud of the way this team performed."