The only bad thing about Friday night’s football game at Engel Field was that the visiting Hilmar Yellowjackets came out on top at the end.
In a furious battle – bringing to mind memories of past Escalon-Hilmar rivalry games – the Yellowjackets escaped with a 41-38 second round playoff victory. That win catapulted them into the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI finals against Modesto Christian. The teams will play Saturday, Nov. 25 at 6 p.m. at Lincoln High School in Stockton to decide the crown.
Escalon, which grabbed a share of the Trans-Valley League title this season with a 4-1 record, defeated both Hilmar and MC during the regular season. Friday night’s loss also was the final game in the storied career of Escalon head coach Mark Loureiro, retiring from coaching and teaching this year. The team compiled an overall 7-5 record in his final season.
But losing was not on the minds of the Cougars as they came on to the field for the Nov. 17 contest, the squad looking to take down Hilmar for a second time.
“What a great game,” Loureiro admitted. “I would have paid money to see that game … it was a heavyweight fight, each team taking each other’s best shot.”
The game was one in which Hilmar scored the first points of the night and the Cougars were constantly playing catch up.
But they caught up, matching the Yellowjackets score for score through the first three quarters.
Hilmar struck with 8:53 to go in the first quarter, connecting on a 20-yard field goal to go up 3-0. On the ensuing kickoff, Kaden Christensen churned up 66 yards to get the Cougars in good position but, after a fumble, an incomplete pass and a short yardage gain, Guillermo Alvarez came on to tie the game with a 38-yard field goal, making it 3-3 with 7:31 to go in the first.
The next possession, Hilmar again found the end zone, capping off a drive with a one-yard touchdown plunge and the point after to go up 10-3.
Escalon was driving at the end of the first and scored on the first play of the second quarter, Elliott Mello scoring on a four-yard run and Rodrigo DeMelo adding the extra point to knot the score at 10-10.
“Every time they scored, we answered,” Loureiro said of the early going, with the game looking more like a track meet as the teams moved up and down the field.
The Cougars were just catching their breath from their touchdown when the Yellowjackets burned them on a reverse on the ensuing kickoff, turning it into another score to regain the lead at 17-10.
The action was fast and furious, with fans in the stands and those on the sidelines trying to keep up with the scoring and the statistics. Hilmar squibbed the kickoff to put Escalon in good field position on their next possession and, with efficiency, quarterback Steven Grossi brought the Cougars to the line. He found Christensen in the end zone and the versatile sophomore was able to fend off the Hilmar defender – who did get his hand on the ball – to take possession and get the Cougars back on the board. The 21-yard pass play and kick by DeMelo knotted the score at 17-17 with 8:07 still to play in the first half.
“We’ve got a war here,” Loureiro told his troops as he marched the sideline in that second quarter. “High school football at its best.”
After trading the first punts of the game, Hilmar went up 24-17 on a short running play with 3:38 left in the half, taking advantage of a 15-yard personal foul penalty on the Cougars.
Escalon had to punt again on its next possession and Hilmar looked poised for another score, driving as time was winding down in the half. It was then that Estephan Salcedo stepped in front of the Yellowjacket receiver and grabbed his seventh interception of the season, returning this one 56 yards for the score. DeMelo added the point after and it was 24-24. Time ran out in the first half before either team could score again, but the action left the crowd breathless.
“The TVL has turned in to the Big 12,” announcer Greg Largent quipped as the teams left the field for the halftime break.
Third quarter action saw the teams trade touchdowns once more, Hilmar scoring with 8:54 left in the third on a 29-yard pass play, kick good to make it 31-24. Escalon countered with a drive that featured some huge runs by Jake Lewis, a completed pass to Nash Satnat and a three-yard run by Mello to the end zone. With the kick it was 31-31.
An Escalon fumble, recovered by Hilmar later in the third, looked like it might lead to some points but Nick DeWeerd picked off a Yellowjacket pass in the end zone to end the threat.
In the fourth quarter, Hilmar scored a touchdown on an 11-yard run to go up 38-31 and then added a field goal, extending the lead to 41-31.
“That was with four minutes left,” Loureiro said, noting that instead of giving up, the Cougars pushed themselves harder. “The kids found a reason to keep fighting.”
Hilmar tried the onside kick but Lucca Dutra grabbed it up and Grossi found Max Nicholas cutting across a seam, the pass play going for a 51-yard touchdown play. DeMelo added the kick and the Cougars had cut the deficit to 41-38 with 3:45 to play, igniting the home crowd.
The excitement built even further when Mark DeHaven recovered a Hilmar fumble, giving the Cougars one final possession. A couple of short rushing plays made it a fourth and eight from the 24-yard line and Loureiro sent out Alvarez to attempt the game-tying field goal with just under a minute and a half to play.
The kick had plenty of distance – but was just wide left, missing by less than a foot.
“He had plenty of leg, it was just wide left but I told Guillermo that I’d do it again,” Loureiro said of the decision to go for the tie.
Hilmar was able to run out the clock after taking possession of the ball, paving their way to the title game and ending Escalon’s season.
“It was a hard fought game,” said DeHaven, one of the team captains.
And though the Cougars didn’t get the chance to bring Loureiro one final Section banner, DeHaven said the squad can be proud of a winning record and a share of the league title.
“We’ve got the greatest coach the 209 has ever seen,” DeHaven added. “At the end of the day, you have to hold your head up.”
Mello had 17 carries for 82 yards and two touchdowns in the finale, Lewis had five carries for 50 yards. Grossi completed 7-of-14 passes for 144 yards. Nicholas had two catches for 57 yards and a score, Satnat had two receptions for 34 yards and Jordan Gwartney had two catches for 29 yards.
Defensively, Satnat was in on 17 tackles, Mello with 11 and Jacob Walden had nine tackles. DeHaven had the fumble recovery, Salcedo and DeWeerd had interceptions.
The absence of Hugo Alcala, injured the previous week, forced some players to be on the field longer than normal and definitely had an impact.
“The second half, they kept the ball away from us,” Loureiro noted. “The numbers match the story of the game. It was like who was going to win was whoever had the ball last.”
Escalon had 186 rushing yards, 144 passing for 330 total yards, with 12 first downs. Hilmar had 49 rushing plays for 313 yards, 51 yards passing for 364 total yards and 22 first downs.
“It was a championship atmosphere,” Loureiro said. “You left that game, as a coach, as a player, as a fan, you saw what high school football is all about.”