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Cougars Sting Yellowjackets In First Round Playoff Game
Improving to 10-1 on the season, Escalon earned a decisive victory over Hilmar (8-3) in the opening round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV-B playoffs, hosting the Yellowjackets on Friday night.

Setting the tone early, Escalon kicked off to start the Nov. 20 contest and while Hilmar managed to hang on to the ball for two series of plays, they were forced to punt on a fourth and 14. Brandon Shaw blocked the punt and Colin Keener picked the ball out of the air after it was batted by Shaw, running it to the 27-yard line. That set up the first score of the game for the Cougars, who used a combination of Steve Silva, Jason Diniz and a big catch by Josh Miguel from quarterback Spencer Franceschetti to get into the end zone. Silva dove in from a yard out and Diniz added the point after for a 7-0 Cougar lead with 6:33 to play in the opening quarter.

On Hilmar's next possession, it was Shaw making the difference again, this time making a fumble recovery to put the ball back in Cougar hands.

They didn't waste the opportunity, with another pass to Miguel, rushes by Diniz and Miguel and the 4-yard touchdown run from Diniz with the point after making it 14-0 with 4:05 to play in the first.

Taking control early, said head coach Mark Loureiro, was key.

"We played with passion, intensity, we got out of the blocks quick," Loureiro said. "Brandon was all over, he blocked the punt to start the first drive, got a fumble recovery, intercepted a pass, had nine tackles ... he did a great job for us."

Rain that had been threatened at a 100 percent chance didn't materialize as forecast. There was a little rain during the day but by game time, skies were clear and the field, though sloppy in some places, did not pose a huge problem. Runners were able to keep their feet so the powerful rushing attack of the Cougars worked well.

"Offensively, we had some life," Loureiro said. "We played with some urgency, Spencer was 4-for-6 in passing for 69 yards with a touchdown and he rushed for 47 yards on five carries, it's late in the year and we're getting him more involved in the rushing attack."

Miguel had another huge effort, with 11 carries for 110 yards and a touchdown, as well as two catches for 44 yards.

Silva had 15 carries for 74 yards and two touchdowns on the night, churning up the tough yardage on the field. Nick Largent pulled in a touchdown pass, making an over the shoulder grab in the end zone from 18 yards out and Diniz also had a touchdown and nailed a field goal late in the game.

Hilmar, down 14-0 early, couldn't get too much going against a determined Escalon defense. With 1:31 left in the first quarter, Hilmar had a fourth and four at the 31-yard-line and opted to go for it. But Travis Cardoza was there to make the sack and give the ball to the Cougars on downs.

Punting early in the second quarter, Escalon saw Hilmar mount its best drive of the game, 19 plays for 76 yards, ending with a 3-yard touchdown run and the point after to make it 14-7. The drive ate up much of the second quarter, Escalon getting the ball back on the kickoff with 3:28 remaining in the half. After the kickoff return by Adrian Cortes, there was a big run by Miguel, a couple nice gains by Franceschetti and the big pass to Largent, the Cougars answered right back, extending the lead to 21-7 with 1:15 to play.

"That was the biggest score, when they cut it to 14-7 and we answered right back within four plays, that broke their back," Loureiro said.

Diniz then kicked it off into the end zone and, starting at the 20-yard line, Hilmar didn't have enough time to score before the half ended.

Escalon started the second half with the ball but lost it on a fumble less than two minutes in to the third quarter. Hilmar was unable to take advantage, Miguel breaking up a pass play on a fourth and four that gave the Cougars the ball back. From the 18-yard line, they went on a 10-play, 82-yard drive that ended with Miguel breaking free for a 34-yard touchdown run. The kick by Diniz was good for a 28-7 lead.

Franceschetti got an interception on the next Hilmar possession, but Hilmar got the ball back soon after on another Cougar fumble. With time ticking down in the third, Hilmar went on a drive that ended on a 1-yard dive from the quarterback for the score. The point after was good and the Yellowjackets trimmed the lead to 28-14.

Not to be outdone, the Cougars went to Silva, who battled for yardage as the third quarter gave way to the fourth, scoring on a 23-yard run with 10:17 to play. The kick was good and Escalon was up 35-14.

Hilmar answered on their next drive, getting a 34-yard touchdown run and the point after for a 35-21 score.

That came with 7:45 to play and Hilmar tried the onside kick, but it was covered by Cardoza. That gave Escalon the ball at the 40-yard line and, after a 13-yard gain by Diniz on the fly sweep, the Cougars hurt themselves with a couple of penalties. Diniz then made a nice leaping catch and Miguel tacked on another good run, setting up a fourth down. Diniz went in and kicked a 34-yard field goal with about five minutes to play, making it a three-score contest at 38-21.

Any hope Hilmar had to get closer was squelched when Shaw intercepted a pass with 1:14 to play. After a couple late runs by Mac Heard up the middle, the Cougars were able to run out the clock, notching their 10th win of the season.

"I love it," Miguel said of the feeling of getting the first round playoff win. "We came in here, the last home game for our seniors, our O line had a big game, it was an all around team effort."

Miguel, like many of his teammates, was already looking forward to this week as soon as the gun sounded ending the Nov. 20 contest.

"MC is the game we want," he said.

Diniz, who quietly had another huge game for the Cougars, said the team was focused.

"We thought it would be our last home game," he said. "The big thing was to come out with a win. I was pretty confident."

Loureiro pointed to Diniz getting in on the rushing game, catching a few passes, nailing the extra points and the field goal, and putting some kickoffs into the end zone as major contributions.

"He's so important to this ball club," the coach noted. "He's our multipurpose MVP."

Junior Shaw, who is the back up quarterback and has been playing outside linebacker, said it was the words of wisdom from the coach that helped push the team.

"Coach told us big players will make big plays and the seniors deserved this win, they set such a great example," he said. "We wanted to get back to MC. Now it starts with the film, we'll go back, review our mistakes ... no doubt we'll be ready."

Notching a sack and covering the onside kick, Cardoza was glad to put an exclamation point on the season.

"It makes you kind of sad but you play a little harder for pride," he said of the final game at Engel Field. "We left our hearts out there."

Defensively, Largent had 16 tackles, his highest total of the year, with eight tackles from Victor Carrillo and a batted down pass. Jason Johnstad added seven tackles, Cardoza had five tackles and a sack and Gilbert Camacho had a sack. Franceschetti and Shaw had interceptions.

"We were solid in our preparation," Loureiro said of what made the difference. "Everybody's a good team now."

In the team's post game huddle on Friday night, Loureiro and his players already knew they would be heading to Modesto Christian for round two.

"It's not very often you get a second chance to redeem yourself," Loureiro told them. "You worked hard, you got that chance ... believe me, you're the last people they (MC) want to see.

"Make the most of your chance."