Though nerves kicked in as the minutes wound down to kickoff, Escalon’s varsity Cougars were eventually able to shake them off, settle in, and take down Ripon by a 21-7 final in a pivotal Trans-Valley League football battle on Friday night at Engel Field.
Escalon won the coin toss and deferred, opting to put Ripon on offense to start the game.
“Our kids were a little nervous. We had a great week of practice but I think, coming out and seeing Ripon, seeing how big they were, seeing the packed house on both sides of the stands … there were some nerves,” admitted head coach Andrew Beam.
The longtime rivalry game also saw both teams come in with perfect 4-0 marks in the Trans-Valley League. Only Escalon left Engel Field undefeated in TVL action, now leading the standings with a 5-0 mark and Ripon at 4-1, each team with one more game to play.
Fans filled the stands, with many also in the standing room only portions near the end zones. The Escalon High School student cheering section showed up sporting cowboy hats, a nod to their team taking on the Indians of Ripon, and kept up the cheering support throughout the contest. It was also the night for the Tiny Cougars little cheerleaders to do their routine and showcase newfound skills at halftime.
On the playing field, Escalon kicked off to the Indians and the visitors had a first and 10 at the 30 to start the night. A dump pass on the first play from scrimmage went for a big gain, but two rushing plays went nowhere. An incomplete pass brought the Indians to a fourth down near midfield so they had to punt it away.
The kick settled in at the 10-yard line with no return by Escalon and the host Cougars then set up for their first offensive play of the night.
But with nerves still taut, there was too much confusion on the field and Beam was forced to take a timeout before his team got its first snap off.
“We knew what play we were going to run probably two weeks ago,” the coach explained of the game plan. “But we had 12, 13 guys in the huddle, two tight ends on the wrong side, a couple of kids running out of the end zone … I called a time out so we could calm down.”
Beam said he asked his players in the huddle if they were “ready to play football now” after taking a deep breath, and the team responded in a big way.
The handoff went to Matthew Baptista, who – with the help of some key blocks – broke off a 90-yard run for the touchdown. The point after kick by Alfonzo Gonzalez was good for a 7-0 Escalon lead with 9:42 to go in the opening quarter.
“There were three key blocks on that run; Ryker Peters at the edge, EJ Lewis and Owen Nash just absolutely flat backed their guys,” Beam explained. “And then Nathan Chavez, Anthony Jones and Tate Christensen were just running down the field with Matthew. Everybody did their job and we couldn’t have drawn it up any better.”
Ripon looked to answer that early Cougar drive but a fluke play on their next possession saw Escalon get into the end zone once again.
After making a little headway and getting a first down, a bad snap glanced off the Indian quarterback and was picked off by Christensen, finding himself with the ball and lots of real estate ahead of him. He rumbled 67 yards for the touchdown. With the point after, it was 14-0 Escalon with 7:22 to play in the first.
“Technically it was a fumble recovery, a scoop and score,” Beam said of the touchdown that came four plays after Baptista’s explosive run. “The place was going wild.”
Christensen had to take the next two offensive and defensive series off, Beam added with a chuckle, as they didn’t have an oxygen tank available for him and he needed some time to catch his breath on the sidelines.
“It was a bad snap, it bounced off the quarterback and everything is just kind of a blur from there,” Christensen admitted, adding that he briefly thought about just downing the ball and giving the Cougars possession but then though, why not run? “I don’t think I’ve ever run that fast in my life.”
With a two-touchdown lead not even halfway into the first quarter, the Cougars seemed poised to put the game away early. But that just didn’t happen.
“Then it gets weird,” Beam said of the contest. “Nobody scores for the next two quarters. We had opportunities.”
The Cougars had their offensive struggles and were victimized as much by their own miscues as anything the Indians did.
“We turned the ball over five times, we had an interception, a fumble and three times when we went for it on fourth and short, we got stopped,” the coach explained. “We won that game and still didn’t play well offensively. Hats off to the defense and the defensive coaches.”
Beam said both teams came in with highly rated defenses; Escalon’s defense simply played better than Ripon’s on Friday night.
Starting the second half, Baptista returned the kickoff to the 45 and a strong run by Peters and a short run by Logan Anderson put the Cougars at the 2-yard line. A couple of runs were stuffed and, setting up for the field goal, Gonzalez instead took the snap and lofted a pass to Ryan Lewis in the end zone, but it was broken up so there were no points on the drive, but Ripon was pinned deep in their own territory.
After an exchange of possessions, the Indians finally put a scoring drive together, going in on a 24-yard run with the kick good, making it 14-7 with 3:14 to go in the third.
That got the Ripon crowd into the game, their student cheering section growing louder as the yardage got churned up and the points went on the board, sensing the momentum shift. The next Cougar possession was short lived, as Ripon continued to keep the pressure on.
“We stole the momentum back on a Matthew Baptista interception, that was a huge moment,” said Beam.
The interception came with 1:12 left in the third and gave Escalon the ball at the Ripon 44-yard line.
“We got two big plays, a 15-yard run by Ryker Peters and then a 20-yard run by JP Lial that was the last play of the third quarter,” Beam explained. “Those set up the first play of the fourth quarter, a 9-yard touchdown run by Logan Anderson. That made it 21-7 and we felt we had taken the momentum back.”
Ripon battled, though, going on a time-consuming drive that eventually saw them at the Cougar 7-yard line with 5:28 to play. It was on the next play that sophomore Jamin Miller stepped in front of the slant pass and picked it off at the 5-yard line to stop the Indians short. The ensuing Cougar drive saw a couple of first downs but ultimately ended in a punt, Ripon getting the ball with 1:26 to play, at their own 31. A few plays later saw them driving, in Escalon territory, but senior Caden Gonsalves sealed the win with an interception at the 36-yard line with just 18 seconds left to play.
“Jamin had a great night,” Beam said of his sophomore, who was just edged out for the Ball-Out Belt by senior Gonsalves.
“It feels good, we did our job,” said Miller.
Gonsalves added that it took everyone to get the win on the books and he couldn’t be happier about getting a title.
“Honestly, it’s the greatest feeling in the world, to beat our rivals on our home field,” he said. “To be a senior and finally get what I’ve been seeking for, it’s just the best feeling I’ve ever had.”
Senior Sebastian Snow said the team had been waiting for the chance to avenge a 2019 loss to Ripon – they didn’t get to play in the abbreviated season last school year – and he said that meant hard work all week.
“We showed up, we were determined,” Snow said.
And it was the defense that made the difference.
“Just the defensive effort,” Beam added, noting how his players stepped up to the challenge. “We knew Ripon was bigger. But I refused to believe they were tougher.”
Escalon, with the Indians running right at them, allowed just four rushing yards in the first half; 56 in the second for a total of 60 rushing yards for Ripon on the night.
“We only ran 37 plays to Ripon’s 64,” added Beam.
Rushing, Peters had eight carries for 104 yards and Baptista had six rushes for 93 yards. EJ Lewis and Owen Nash were top receivers, while quarterback Donovan Rozevink was 4-for-9 for 65 yards.
Escalon had 312 total yards in the game, Ripon had 306.
“Everything was hard offensively; that’s a good football team,” Beam said of the Indians.
It was the defense standing tall, with 11 tackles from Gonsalves, eight by Miller and seven from Peters.
“It was just an awesome job by those linebackers,” Beam said. “Jamin Miller and Nathan Chavez also each had a sack and Sebastian Snow had his best defensive game; he had five tackles.”
The coach also said it was great for the team, fans and the community to have a game with meaning; the victory clinched at least a share of the Trans-Valley League title and the Cougars can claim sole possession with a win over Livingston in the regular season finale at Engel Field on Friday, Oct. 29.
“We just had an awesome turnout from the community,” Beam added. “And I loved the student section, the cowboy theme they had … this was just a good TVL rivalry game and something we have all been missing for the last year and a half.”