Eighteen seconds in to Friday night’s game on the road at Ripon, the Escalon varsity Cougars were already down 6-0.
After sending the opening kickoff to host Ripon – a kick that was returned to roughly the 40-yard line – the first play from scrimmage saw an Indian player break free for the touchdown run. The point after attempt was no good, but the home team was on the scoreboard early.
Ripon came in to the game at 1-1 in Trans-Valley League play, Escalon was 2-0 and a Cougar victory would likely have spelled the end of Ripon’s chances at making the playoffs. But on Senior Night in Ripon, the host Indians put Escalon into what is now a ‘must win’ situation if they want to get to the playoffs. The final score was Ripon 32, Escalon 14.
“It was a very disappointing night, for sure,” said head coach Mark Loureiro. “We had a good week of practice, a lot of energy in warm-ups … but we were our own worst enemy.”
The Cougars had a field goal attempt blocked that was returned by Ripon for a touchdown, got inside the 5-yard line and failed to score and had difficulty containing the Indians up the middle.
Though Escalon came back to take the lead with a touchdown of their own in the first quarter, Ripon went back ahead before the game moved into the second frame.
Kaden Christensen got Escalon on the board with 7:41 to play in the first on a 17-yard run, the point after was good by Rodrigo DeMelo for a 7-6 Cougar advantage. A big run by Elliott Mello and a clutch reception by Max Nicholas set up the Escalon score.
Later in the first, on a third and seven, the Cougar defense looked to have the quarterback wrapped up but he scrambled free, avoided the sack and connected on a 47-yard touchdown reception. The kick was good and it was 13-7 Ripon.
With the Cougars driving early in the second quarter, the drive stalled and they set up for the 25-yard field goal attempt; the kick was blocked and scooped up by an alert Ripon player, who returned it for the score. With the kick, it was 20-7.
“I don’t remember, in all my years coaching, ever having a field goal attempt blocked and then returned the other way for a touchdown,” Loureiro said. “We just froze.”
Escalon continued to battle and Mello converted on a 29-yard touchdown run, kick good by DeMelo, with 5:35 to play in the first half.
Ripon’s next drive was stopped on a fourth and three, the Cougars took over and eventually set up for a field goal attempt late in the first half; this time the kick was wide and the Cougars went into halftime down 20-14.
Getting the ball to start the second half, Loureiro said the team talked about having a good drive, working to get the lead back but after a fair catch at the 32-yard line, the Cougars fumbled on the first play from scrimmage. Ripon capitalized, turning that turnover into a touchdown. The kick was no good but with 7:35 to go in the third, the Indians started to pull away, 26-14. They added a fourth quarter score on a one-yard QB keeper but failed on the 2-point conversion for the 32-14 final.
“Defensively, we didn’t play well,” Loureiro said. “Offensively, we had flashes of good play.”
The combined overall effort, though, fell short of what the Cougars wanted – and needed – against their rivals.
Christensen had eight carries for 82 yards and a touchdown; Mello had 16 carries for 88 yards and a score. Nicholas pulled in the bulk of the passes on the night, six catches for 100 yards. Loureiro said outside linebackers Lucca Dutra and Mello had a solid night, playing well and containing the Ripon speed outside.
Statistically, the Cougars had the edge, with 366 total yards and 21 first downs to Ripon’s 277 total yards and 11 first downs. Escalon completed 10 of 21 passes with one interception; Ripon completed 4-of-6 passes with no interceptions. Each team lost one fumble, Ripon fumbled just once while Escalon fumbled four times.
“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” captain Mark DeHaven admitted following the tough loss. “We didn’t deserve to win the game. But we can’t dwell on the bad; we can still get a piece of the title.”
Escalon will take on Modesto Christian this week and must take down the 3-0 Crusaders to stay in the running for a share of the TVL title.
Fellow captain Trent Cummings said the team felt at halftime that they could stage a comeback in the second half but now have to move on without looking back.
“We have to bring up the intensity,” Cummings said.
Loureiro said the team needs to take advantage of being home for their final two regular season games.
“We’ve got ourselves in a must-win situation,” he said. “But we can control our own destiny.”
Riding high on a 3-0 Trans-Valley League record, the Modesto Christian Crusaders arrive in Escalon for a crucial TVL match with the host Cougars on Friday night, Oct. 27.
“Modesto Christian is 4-4 overall, 3-0 in league and they’re coming off a 41-13 win over Hilmar,” said Escalon head coach Mark Loureiro. “They only suit up 25 kids but they have excellent speed and good athletes.”
The fast Crusaders running corps includes Davion Gates, Jose Hernandez and Paul Puaauli, with quarterback Hayden Sauser under center. Wideouts Rory Hanson and Xavier Carlton both top out at 6-6 and the tough linemen include Ryan Higginbotham and Nathaniel Norton.
“We’ve played well against them the last few years,” Loureiro said. “But there is no room for mistakes.”
Escalon comes in at 2-1 in league, 4-4 overall and needs a win on Friday night to stay in both the league title and playoff hunt. Kickoff will be about 7:30 p.m.