In the simplest of terms, it was the tale of two halves.
Tied 7-7 at halftime in the final game of the season, the host Escalon Cougars responded in the second half and defeated the Northwood Timberwolves of Irvine, 28-7, to win the CIF State Division 4-AA Championship.
It was the running game, the tried-and-true Escalon smashmouth style of play that proved to be the difference and it was the offensive line that pushed back the Timberwolves, allowing the Cougars to run up the middle and get into the end zone in that second half.
Conditions were anything but good … rain and gale force winds pummeled Escalon and the rest of the Central Valley on Saturday, Dec. 10. But with rain slickers, umbrellas and boots, the crowd turned out at Engel Field to cheer on the varsity squad. A plywood platform was set up for the cheerleaders, as the track where they normally stand and cheer during games was under water.
Amazingly, though it was pouring about 20 minutes before kickoff for the 6 p.m. contest, the rain lightened up and virtually stopped early in the first half. The damage, though, was already done as the field was sloppy and the ball was heavy, leaving the Cougars unable to get much going through the air.
Escalon did win the toss and deferred, kicking off to Northwood. The Timberwolves’ first possession was cut short as Jamin Miller jumped on a loose ball and got the fumble recovery. That set up Escalon’s first score, on a 7-yard pass from quarterback Donovan Rozevink to tight end Ryan Lewis.
It came on a broken play, after the snap was fumbled but Rozevink scrambled to pick the ball up.
“Donovan said he realized he could pick it up and threw it off his back shoulder; he actually had guys on him and in front of him,” head coach Andrew Beam said. “Ryan turned and saw the ball; it was a heads up play by both those guys.”
Talan Reider added the extra point for a 7-0 Cougar lead with 7:25 left in the first quarter.
Later in the quarter, the Timberwolves recovered an Escalon fumble and parlayed that into a second quarter touchdown of their own, aided by a penalty on a field goal attempt that gave them a fresh set of downs. Northwood scored on a 6-yard QB keeper and the kick was good, tying the score 7-7 with 10:34 to play in the second quarter.
Neither team got on the scoreboard the rest of the quarter, heading into the locker rooms at halftime with the score knotted up.
“It was a sloppy first half – I actually think the weather hurt us more than it did them – to not be able to get the ball to (leading receiver Owen) Nash and to not run the ball on our sweeps and get outside, that hurt,” Beam explained. “That left us with one choice, run the ball right at them and we did a much better job in the second half.”
There was some serious talk at halftime, said Beam, as coaches put the challenge to the offensive linemen to make the difference.
“Ryan Lewis, Gio Chavez, Anthony Jones, Hunter Budd, Tate Christensen and Ben Lora, that was the group we challenged at halftime,” Beam explained. “Everything starts up front. We kind of got after the offensive line and the tight end in the locker room.”
Beam said they let them know their play in the second half would likely determine whether Escalon won or lost the state championship.
“We had to push them back and run right at them,” he said of changing the game plan against Northwood.
Lewis is the tight end, Jones and Christensen the guards, Budd the center, Lora the left tackle and Chavez the right tackle.
Escalon got the ball to start the second half and scored on the opening drive. It was on a counter by Logan Anderson, the only time the counter play worked on the night, and he took it in from 49 yards out with 8:50 to play in the third. Reider added the extra point to put Escalon up 14-7.
Escalon’s third scoring drive started in the third quarter and ate up several minutes of the fourth. Ryker Peters carried the ball 17 of the 19 plays on the drive, including a 6-yard run with would-be tacklers trying to bring him down. The kick by Reider was good and the Cougars had a 21-7 lead with just 3:31 to go in the game.
Frustrated on offense, with just one catch on the night, Owen Nash picked off a Northwood pass on the Timberwolves’ next possession and returned it for the touchdown, effectively sealing the victory for Escalon. Reider’s extra point made it 28-7 with just a couple of minutes to go in the game.
Time ran out for the Timberwolves, as the Cougar offensive line wore them down, just as the Escalon coaches asked, and it was a happy group that celebrated the victory by sliding into the mud pit on the Cougar sidelines.
Peters had 33 carries for 177 yards and a touchdown; Anderson had 10 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown. Nash had just one catch for 7 yards but also added the pick six. Also catching passes were Lewis, for a touchdown, and Reider, for a short game.
Defensively, Nate Krieger had seven tackles and Jamin Miller added six; Miller and Javier Gutierrez also had fumble recoveries.
Escalon, which went 3-1 in a tough preseason, appeared poised to make a run at the Trans-Valley League title. They took back-to-back losses to Hughson and Hilmar, however, and had to find a way to turn the season around.
At 3-3 after their first two TVL contests, the Cougars did turn it around, ending the game on a 10-game winning streak, earning the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 5 title, the NorCal North Division 4-AA Bowl title and the CIF State Championship, Division 4-AA.
“Ryker had 270 carries for 2,208 yards; that’s quite a season,” Beam said of the workhorse and his incredible senior season. “Nash goes over 1,000 yards receiving, Donovan throws for more yards in a season than any other quarterback in Escalon history, Logan goes over 1,000 yards of offense receiving and rushing,” Beam said. “And our defense against Sutter, against Hilmar, against Pleasant Valley and this week was awesome; those teams never really threatened when it mattered.”
The Cougars earned the fifth state title in school history: 1993 and 1996 were awarded to the team prior to the start of championship game play between the north and south. They won the 2010 state title playing at Carson in Southern California, won the 2019 title at Engel Field and played the final game on the old Engel Field – due to be torn out and replaced with a new sprinkler system and sod – to win the 2022 state championship.
“We are so fortunate to do it at home,” Beam summarized. “The last game at the original Engel Field was a state championship victory.”