Like a prizefighter going the full 12 rounds, Escalon was the last one standing in the Division 5 Sac-Joaquin Section football playoffs.
The Cougars – who defeated Trans-Valley League rival Hilmar on Saturday night, Nov. 27 – brought home the coveted blue banner, Division 5 champions for the 2021 season. It was the 10th Section title for Escalon.
“We just made one more stop than they did, had one more good play, that’s what it came down to,” Escalon head coach Andrew Beam said.
Meeting at St. Mary’s High School in Stockton for the 6 p.m. contest on Saturday night, it was a hard fought 20-13 victory for Escalon.
It marked the second time this season they defeated Hilmar, having beaten the Yellowjackets in league play prior to meeting in the playoffs. On the way to the title, the Cougars also defeated TVL rival Ripon twice, once in the regular season and again the playoffs.
“It was a championship atmosphere,” Beam added of the setting, with huge crowds turning out to support both teams in the title battle. “It was a great experience for our kids.”
Hilmar came in with a record of 11-2, Escalon at 11-1; the Cougars had a first round bye as a result of being the top seed in the D5 playoffs, so Hilmar had played one more game. But by the end of the night, it was the Cougars hitting the 12-win mark and Hilmar ended its season at 11-3.
Escalon won the toss and deferred, kicking off to Hilmar to start the game. Known for huge returns on the opening kickoff, many that have been returned for touchdowns, the Cougar defense bent but didn’t break, stopping the Hilmar runner short of the goal line.
Already deep in Escalon territory, the Yellowjackets ran a couple of plays and then tried for a pass to the end zone, which was broken up and ultimately intercepted by Tyler Medina, who ran it out of the end zone and gave Escalon its first turnover of the night.
A couple of runs by Ryker Peters and a first down pass from Donovan Rozevink to Owen Nash put Escalon out near the 35-yared line. It was then that Peters threaded the needle and pushed through, breaking free up the middle for a 66-yard touchdown run. The point after by Alfonzo Gonzalez was good, putting Escalon up 7-0 with 7:17 to play in the first quarter.
Hilmar’s next possession ended with a punt, pinning the Cougars deep. They made some headway as the first quarter gave way to the second but also had to punt. Hilmar wasn’t able to get much going on their next possession and punted it away again. This time, Escalon got a good return by Logan Anderson to near midfield and a couple of plays later, Nash evaded one Hilmar defender on his route, pulled in the pass and avoided a would-be tackler after the catch, going in from 45 yards out. The kick was good and the Cougars were up 14-0 with 5:42 left in the second, the Escalon crowd growing louder.
After another Hilmar punt, the Cougars were driving, poised to add another score before the first half ended. But a fumble on a pass play saw Hilmar get the ball in Escalon territory. Medina, however, was there again and picked off a third down pass, giving the ball back to the Cougars. They had to punt, however, and with a short kick, the Yellowjackets were on their own 48 in the final minute of the half. They put together a drive featuring a couple of big pass plays and a touchdown run with just 14 seconds left in the half. The point after made it 14-7 Escalon at halftime.
Beam said in retrospect, he should have had his players kneel out the first half after Medina’s second interception and gone in to the locker room up 14-0.
“As a coach, I made a mistake not running the clock out and I was kind of kicking myself sick about it at halftime,” Beam admitted.
Instead of a 14-0 lead and getting the ball with all the momentum, the Yellowjackets cut the lead in half and stole the momentum.
Escalon did get the kickoff for the second half but failed to turn it into any points, failing on a 43 yard field goal attempt. Hilmar then ate up several minutes and took advantage of a pass interference call on the Cougars to keep the drive alive, scoring on an 11-yard pass play with 6:58 left in the third. The snap on the extra point attempt was high, so the Cougars held on to the lead, but just by a 14-13 margin.
The ensuing kickoff was returned by Logan Anderson for the touchdown – but was called back on an illegal block in the back – the Cougars stymied once again. They did put together a solid drive, making headway down the field until a fumble saw Hilmar get the ball at the 15-yard line. A few plays later, Medina pounced on a Hilmar fumble, Escalon getting the ball back at midfield.
That led in to the fourth quarter, Escalon still with the one point lead.
“That fourth quarter, I told them, this is what it’s about,” Beam said of finding a way to and win the championship. “Our kids came out and did a great job.”
Playing through mistakes, playing through penalties, many players battling through injuries and coming up with the big stop when it was needed … the team persevered through it all and the prize was the Section title.
What turned out to be the final score of the night featured a second and long completion to Nash from Rozevink – on a broken play.
“We lined up in the wrong formation, the play was on the wrong side,” Beam explained. “Nothing was right on that play except the throw and catch.”
Rozevink found Nash on the left sideline, the receiver going up and grabbing the ball, having it jostled away and collecting it with one hand as he went down at the 3-yard line. From there, JP Lial got the call and punched it in. That made it 20-13. The point after attempt was wide, leaving the door open for Hilmar to potentially tie the game or – with a touchdown and 2-point conversion – take the lead.
“Even in that last five minutes, each team had two possessions,” Beam said of the nail-biting finish.
It was the Cougar defense coming up huge, getting a fourth down stop and forcing the turnover on downs deep in Hilmar territory, able to kneel it out for the victory.
“Our kids showed a ton of grit,” Beam said, especially with half a dozen of them playing through injuries that would normally put them on the bench.
For the game, Peters had 23 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown; Nash had four catches for 108 yards and a touchdown. Rozevink was 9-for-13 for 166 yards and a touchdown. EJ Lewis had five catches for 58 yards.
Defensively, Caden Gonsalves had 12 tackles; Peters had seven and Nash contributed six in having his best game of the season, offensively and defensively. Medina was also a standout with two interceptions and a fumble recovery to his credit.
“We had 41 rushing plays and 13 passing plays, 354 total yards,” Beam said. “Hilmar had 219 total yards.”
It was a hard fought contest, added the coach, and the celebration was on when the clock ran out.
“You have to soak it in,” Beam said of savoring the Section title. “You don’t get these moments that often.”
Escalon will continue its season; they go to San Rafael for a NorCal Division 4-AA contest against host Marin Catholic on Friday, Dec. 3 with a 7:30 p.m. kickoff.