At halftime, their coaches said they needed more.
And the Cougars delivered.
Though they came up just a little short, falling 21-14 to Marin Catholic in the NorCal Division 4-AA North bowl game, it wasn’t due to lack of effort, skill, determination or grit.
“I thought our kids just left it all on the field,” explained Escalon head coach Andrew Beam. “We had three different chances to score (in the first half) including one that was called back … at halftime, we told the kids, we need just a little bit more.”
The heavily favored Wildcats, a higher division team, served as the host squad, with the game played at San Rafael High School, not far from the home of the Marin Catholic team in nearby Kentfield.
After winning the coin toss and deferring, Marin Catholic went on defense first and Beam said the opening drive for the Cougars did everything right but end up with points on the scoreboard.
“That was a 20-play drive, we took about 10-and-a-half minutes, we knew we had to eat up the clock and keep their offense off the field,” Beam said.
On a fourth and five, the Cougars went for it and Logan Anderson found some running room on the right side, going in for the score.
But it was called back on a holding penalty, one that still has the coach – and plenty of Cougar fans – scratching their heads.
“They called a hold on our guy on the ground,” said Beam. “He reached for their guy but didn’t even get him.”
The penalty flag flew, however, and the Cougars were then unable to get into the end zone, as they attempted a 37-yard field goal that went wide right.
Marin Catholic then took over, running one play and completing a long pass as the first quarter expired.
“In the second quarter they scored on an 11-yard run and the kick was good,” Beam said of the Wildcats taking a 7-0 lead.
Escalon’s second drive of the game got to near midfield and they went for it on a fourth and two but were stopped short; Marin Catholic taking over on downs and making the Cougars pay for the decision. They scored on a 2-yard touchdown run, kick good, to make it a 14-0 contest.
With about a minute left in the half, and the Wildcats driving again, Logan Anderson picked off a pass in the end zone to stop a potential scoring drive, the first time the Wildcats quarterback had been intercepted this season.
Down 14-0 at the half, the Cougars were still very much in the game and the loud, supportive crowd that made the long drive from Escalon cheered them on.
Marin Catholic got the ball to start the second half and used a methodical drive to get into the end zone with a 6-yard run, adding the kick for a 21-0 lead.
“There was still a lot of ball game left but you wondered, how would we respond?” Beam said.
He needn’t have worried; the Cougars dug deep and found that ‘little more’ that coaches had asked for.
“They fight back and that’s what makes our kids special,” agreed Beam. “Near the end of the third, we get a 2-yard touchdown run from Ryker Peters.”
Alfonzo Gonzalez added the point after, trimming the lead to 21-7.
A little trickery paved the way for the next touchdown for Escalon. After a defensive stop, they were facing a fourth and 17 at the 45-yard line and went for it.
“We called the hook and ladder and that was truly when the momentum started to shift,” said Beam “It went from Donovan Rozevink to Owen Nash to Matthew Baptista.”
The play was good for more than 20 yards and a fresh set of downs. Then Rozevink connected with EJ Lewis on a 16-yard scoring strike.
“EJ made a one-handed grab as he was falling to the ground, held on to it for the touchdown,” Beam said.
The point after was good, cutting the Marin Catholic lead to 21-14 with about six minutes to play in the game.
“You could just feel it,” added Beam. “Their players started to tighten up, their crowd got quieter and our sideline, our stands came alive.”
The defense for Escalon then came up big as well, getting Marin Catholic into a third and long; they got 12 yards on a third and 14 and went for it on fourth down.
“That was the biggest play, EJ Lewis tackled their running back behind the line of scrimmage and we get the ball back.”
Escalon mounted a drive hoping to complete the comeback, perhaps tying the game or maybe even getting the touchdown and going for the 2-point conversion. They made some headway up the field but on a second and eight, the ball just glanced off the fingertips of a leaping Owen Nash to make it third down. It was one of the few he didn’t catch on the night, the junior having the best game of his career so far.
“Without the catches he made, we aren’t even in a position to tie it,” Beam said of Nash’s outstanding effort, making eight catches for 128 yards, many of them leaping acrobatic grabs.
On a third and eight, the Cougars ran a crossing pattern, quarterback Rozevink tried to get away from the pressure but was forced into an early throw and Marin Catholic got the interception with less than a minute to go. They were then able to take a snap to run out the clock and escape with the NorCal win, advancing to the state championship game.
“Their defense, they were studs,” Beam said. “But we felt our physicality would get to them and you saw things tighten up, in the last 15 minutes of that game, our guys just hit a different groove.”
And while it ended short of the tying touchdown, Beam said there were plenty of heroic efforts from his team.
“Every big time third and fourth down play we needed, Owen Nash made it. On defense, Javier Gutierrez filled in for Matthew Baptista at corner and had eight tackles, kudos to him for stepping in and not backing down from anyone,” Beam said. “Logan Anderson had an interception, Owen Nash had an interception in the fourth quarter, EJ Lewis had a sack, Ryan Lewis, a freshman, had eight tackles and two sacks.”
Rushing the ball, Ryker Peters had 21 carries for 65 yards, a gutsy performance as both Anderson and Baptista came in at less than 100 percent with ankle injuries. Rozevink was 13-for-24 for 209 yards with a touchdown and three picks.
Beam said talk leading up to the game coming from all sides focused on how much of a mismatch the game would be and how “unfortunate” the Cougars were to have to take on the Wildcats.
“Except for our players, our fans and all of us on the sidelines, no one gave us a chance,” Beam said. “I think we came out of that game having earned a lot of respect.”