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Lions' Den Proves Deadly For Cougars
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Trailing 14-0 before the first quarter was over Friday night, the Escalon Cougars mustered their collective resolve and battled back, tying the game 14-14 at the half.

They then drove the length of the field to start the third quarter and took a 17-14 lead over Linden in the section semifinal, but couldn't hold off the host team in the end, the Lions eking out a 21-17 win and a trip to University of the Pacific to play in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship game.

Escalon's final drive of the game was stopped short of a score, with a quarterback sack and a final play interception that sealed the win for the host Linden team.

The teams had met once before this season, the Cougars thoroughly thrashing the Lions, 52-13, at Engel Field in an Oct. 1 Homecoming game. Since that preseason loss to Escalon, Linden has not lost a game, winning the Mother Lode League and roaring through the playoffs.

In action Friday night, with a standing room only crowd there to support the Cougars, Linden made their statement quickly, scoring on their first possession of the game. Escalon won the toss and deferred, kicking off to start the game.

After being pinned at the 9-yard line to start, the ball went first to Jose Zambrano, who bullied his way to the 48-yard line on his first carry. He took the pitch on the next play as well, running to the 25, as the Cougars could not get containment. Then quarterback Erik Nilsen shoveled it to Cody Griffith for a 25-yard touchdown run with 9:50 to play in the opening quarter. The point after attempt failed but the host Lions had a 6-0 lead with just over two minutes gone by in the game.

"In my heart, I'm not sure Linden is a better team than we are, they were a hair better that night," said head coach Mark Loureiro. "We didn't play bad, we made a couple of mistakes that hurt us."

Escalon took the kickoff, Jordan Ramirez bringing it out to the 31-yard line but the Cougars couldn't gain enough on the ground for a first down and had to punt it away. Linden made another solid drive and was poised to score again, but a tough Cougar defensive stand on a fourth and five turned the ball back over to the Cougars on the 7-yard line.

On their next possession, the Cougars got their first first down of the night but on the scramble by quarterback Andrew Beam, the ball was jarred loose as he went down. It was ruled a fumble, recovered by Linden, and the Lions seized that opportunity. They drove in from the 22-yard line on a couple of rushing plays, capped by the 1-yard plunge from Zambrano. This time, the Lions went for the 2-point conversion, Griffith taking it in for a 14-0 lead with 2:37 to play in the first quarter.

"There's no way we overlooked them," Loureiro said. "They were just a step faster and Zambrano is pretty tough, he had 30 rushes for 246 yards, I can't remember anybody going over 200 yards against us, ever, in my time here."

After having to punt on their next possession, it looked like a break would come the Cougars' way, as the Lion receiver called for a fair catch on the punt, but then bobbled the ball away. The Cougars pounced on it, but a referee had blown a whistle - inadvertently - and rather than a fumble recovery for Escalon at the 8-yard line, the kick had to be done over. Despite loud protests from the crowd, the kick was re-done.

As the second quarter wore on, the teams traded a few possessions, then Escalon went on a scoring drive that started with a fair catch on the 22. Key play in the drive was a Beam toss to Ramirez, good for 39 yards. Beam then avoided a sack by scrambling for some tough yards inside the 10 and Gustavo Arzac drove in from the 1-yard line for the touchdown with 3:28 to play in the first half. Chris Diniz added the point after to cut the Linden lead in half, 14-7.

Linden got the ball and went on another drive, counting on Zambrano to roll up the yardage. Quarterback Nilsen had one pass tipped away by the tandem of Anthony Suniga and Jason Chandley on a first down play, then the Cougars stuffed the run on second down. Back to pass on a third down play, Nilsen's pass was intercepted by defensive back Sean O'Neill and he returned it to the 40-yard line, setting up the next Cougar score.

With just 32 seconds left in the half, the Cougars pounced on their opportunity. Beam scrambled to avoid the surging Lion defense and let one fly, Ramirez outdistancing the defense and pulling down the 40-yard pass in the left corner of the end zone for the score. Diniz put the point after through the uprights and it was a 14-14 game with 23 seconds to go in the half.

Linden refused to go quietly, mounting a final drive that was stopped short with an interception by Suniga with one second to go. The Cougars took the snap and the knee, content to go in tied at halftime.

"We knew going in that we would have to score four times to win," said Loureiro. "We scored three. I know we're disappointed but this team went farther than anyone expected."

Taking the second half kickoff, the Cougars started at the 29-yard line after a short return by O'Neill. Their game got in gear then, with a big gain by Arzac to the 48-yard line, then a first-down pass to Suniga, another first down carry by Arzac and a completion to Marcus Savage. On a third and seven, Beam found Suniga at the 16-yard line for a first down but Linden kept the Cougars at bay, even pushing them back a little before Diniz came on to attempt a 32-yard field goal. The kick was good and gave Escalon its first lead of the game, 17-14, with 6:49 to go in the third quarter.

A combination of penalties kept Linden from any real scoring threat on their next possession, then the Cougars went on a drive that started in the third quarter and continued into the fourth. It was stopped on a Lion interception and with 9:02 to play, Linden had the ball, first and 10, at the 37-yard line. They went on their final scoring drive from there, eating up nearly four minutes before Zambrano ran it up the middle for a 24-yard score. The kick was good and the Lions had a 21-17 lead.

"When we lined up for our field goal, I knew in my heart it needed to be seven points, not three," admitted Loureiro. "Their last drive, they converted on three fourth-down tries, we needed a stop and we just couldn't get it."

Escalon did have one final drive, Ramirez putting them in good field position with a kickoff return to the 42-yard line with 4:55 to play, giving the Cougar fans something to cheer about in the final few minutes. The drive also included a first-down reception by Steve Gentry at the 34-yard line and a rushing first down by Jason Chandley. Then the Cougars got called for a false start penalty and had the ball at the 30. The next snap saw the Lions swarm Beam for the sack, putting the Cougars in a third and 29 hole. An incomplete pass followed and Beam's final throw of the season - on fourth and forever - was intended for Suniga, but a Linden defender timed his leap right and pulled down the pass with 46 seconds to go.

After that, there was nothing Escalon could do but watch Linden take the knee a couple of times while the crowd chanted "UOP! UOP!," a slogan usually reserved for the Cougar faithful.

"For our seniors, it hit them a little harder because they realized it was their last game," said Loureiro. "And we always win that close game, we're used to winning, getting to UOP."

Defensively, the Cougars got stellar efforts out of Jesse Jimenez, 12 tackles, and Arzac, nine tackles.

"Anthony Suniga, our free safety, had 11 tackles and one interception, it's good and bad, it's nice he had 11 tackles but that means you're letting guys through up front and counting on your secondary to make the tackles," explained Loureiro. "Sean O'Neill also had a nice game for us, he had six tackles and one interception, which led to a touchdown."

Offensively, Arzac had 15 carries for 60 yards and a score, Ramirez had five carries for 42 yards and two catches for 80 yards, including a touchdown.

"We turned the ball over three times and two of them led to touchdowns," added Loureiro. "You can't do that, especially on the road."

So while the Cougars are finished at 10-2 on the season, Linden heads to UOP with a 9-3 mark, facing off against Argonaut.

"It was a hell of a season," said Loureiro. "One game shouldn't take away what these kids accomplished, they went real deep in the playoffs, they were one play, one step away from UOP."