Times Photos By Marg Jackson
There was plenty of chatter prior to the game; chatter that said Escalon – moved up to Division 4 for the Sac-Joaquin Section football playoffs this season – would not be able to take down the Sacramento Dragons.
So, the home team and number one seed Cougars were classified by most as the underdogs. And all they did was prove that they are comfortable with that role – as they amassed 600 yards of offense, ran 78 plays and posted a lopsided 57-32 victory on Friday night, Nov. 10.
Sacramento, the number nine seed, was coming off a road win against the number eight seed Sierra Timberwolves. Escalon head coach Andrew Beam said the Dragons were “as advertised” in that they were big, strong and athletic.
But there’s also plenty to be said for heart and determination … and the Cougars displayed more of that on the gridiron than their opponent on Friday night.
After a 6-6 tie at the end of the first quarter, Escalon slowly but surely started to take control, outscoring the Dragons by a 22-6 edge in the second quarter to take a 28-12 lead into the locker room at halftime. The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, though Escalon had the scoring edge 14-12, and the Cougars tacked on two more scores in the final frame to Sacramento’s one touchdown to put Escalon into the semifinals with the 57-32 win. Sacramento’s season came to an end.
Beam said the first quarter was strange, in that though his team got on the board first, Sacramento was able to answer on a drive that featured five downs. A call by the officiating crew, a penalty on the Dragons, was enforced improperly and the visiting team was gifted with a fifth down in the offensive series. They scored on that fifth down.
And even though Beam vehemently protested the way the penalty on the play was enforced, the officials did not change their stance. It allowed Sacramento to tie the game at 6-6. To the Cougars’ credit, noted their coach, they didn’t dwell on it and instead let it fire them up, much as they did the reports that they were the ‘underdogs’ for the contest.
“I was really proud of the physicality of our players,” Beam said, noting that they were able to wear down their larger opponent as the game wore on.
“We had 29 first downs, we ran 78 plays,” Beam explained.
Dragon standout and Utah commit Lamar Radcliffe wasn’t able to do much against the first Cougar defense; rushing for just 14 yards in the first half. He did gain some yardage as the Cougars put their second unit in at times during the second half, rushing for a total of 111 yards.
Escalon, meanwhile, was paced by Jamin Miller, 17 carries for 140 yards and a touchdown; Josh Graham, 22 carries for 125 yards and a touchdown; and Talan Reider, 11 carries for 93 yards and a touchdown. Reider also had one catch for 30 yards and a score. Sam Jimenez was the leading receiver, seven catches for 130 yards, scoring three touchdowns.
“They were definitely more physical than we thought they were going to be,” admitted junior Jimenez of facing off with the Dragons. “We ended up pulling it together, we just have to stop the big home run plays.”
Senior Josh Graham, who went over 1,000 yards rushing during the season, was at it again and refused to go down easily, often carrying three or four defenders with him while he churned up yardage on Friday night.
“I’ve got to give all the credit to my offensive line,” Graham said. “They got me to the second level, basically every run, as long as I can get to the second level I can do what I need to do against the linebackers but without the line, I can’t do anything.”
One of this year’s team captains, senior Jamin Miller, said seeing the Dragons tie it up early didn’t really change the way the Cougars approached the game.
“Their first touchdown, I don’t believe that they truly earned it, honestly,” Miller admitted. “We just had to keep going, when a team scores a touchdown especially early on in the game, we can’t get down on ourselves, we just have to keep playing our game and keep doing our job.”
Senior quarterback Donovan Rozevink said the 57 points is something he is proud to see his team put up on the scoreboard, but not something that surprised him.
“We’re really confident; it was great to come out here and put up 57 … it was a great feeling,” Rozevink said, adding that he expects another good effort in the semifinals. “I think if we just keep playing our game it’ll come our way.”
Recovering a fumble on the night was junior Noah Gutierrez.
“It’s awesome, I really love my team, I love coming out here every day and playing with them,” Gutierrez said. “They really give me energy every day out there on the field. Having to do my part every day, and being with them and them encouraging me, just being a part of the win, it’s awesome.”
Beam said it was a total team effort, once again.
“Donovan Rozevink had another good night, he was 9-for-15 for 179 yards, four touchdowns in the air and one interception,” Beam said. “Nate Krieger forced a fumble and Noah Gutierrez had the fumble recovery; Logan Huebner had an interception, Sam had an interception.”
First quarter scoring for the Cougars came on a 1-yard run by Graham and the two-pointer was no good. Sacramento then scored to make it 6-6.
That was the only time the Dragons would be on even footing with the Cougars.
Second quarter scores were on a Reider 30-yard catch with Jimenez catching the 2-point conversion; Miller then scored on a 3-yard run, the point after kick by Reider was good. Jimenez pulled in a 38-yard pass on a post pattern for the score and Reider added the kick, giving the Cougars 28 first half points.
In the third quarter, Reider went in from 12 yards out and the kick was good; Jimenez then hauled in a 32-yard pass from Rozevink for the score, kick good. In the fourth quarter, Jimenez scored on a 7-yard pass play, Graham got the 2-point conversion that extended the Cougar lead to 50-24.
Ben Gonzalez put the game away with a 14-yard touchdown run, the point after by Reider was good and Escalon punched their ticket to the semifinal round. Sacramento tacked on a late score and 2-point conversion for the 57-32 final.
“We struggled to adapt to their speed at first and we had a little bit of rust after the bye week but there were a lot of positives,” Beam said.
He pointed to the work of guards Gio Chavez and Anthony Jones as being crucial, having to pull on every offensive play, as well as the blocking by Ryan Lewis.
“The work he has to do as the blocking tight end, that’s what springs the whole Wing T,” Beam said.
Lewis also had a sack on defense; Trent Powell notched a sack as well.
“That one’s over with,” Beam added of the quarterfinal. “Now we have the 10-2 West Park Panthers, out of Roseville, they are a team that is taking off and are definitely on the rise. This is a heck of a challenge.”
Gates for the semifinal game at Engel Field on Friday, Nov. 17 will open at 5:45 p.m.; entry is by GoFan ticket only. Beam said courtesy of a community donor, the first 50 Escalon High School students at the game will be admitted free.
Kickoff will be at 7 p.m.; at stake is a trip to the Section finals.
The victory over Sacramento was number 600 for the Escalon Cougars, tying them with Grant for second place all time in the Sac-Joaquin Section, behind just Manteca on the total wins list.
“I want to thank every player, every coach that has ever come through here; they all have played a part,” Beam said.
But now the Cougars are set on nailing down win number 601.
“The stakes are higher than ever,” Beam said.