Giving the Central Catholic Raiders everything they had, Escalon hung with the host team through the fourth quarter before giving up a couple late scores, taking a 35-14 loss in Modesto on Friday night.
The loss ended Escalon’s season in the semifinals of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs. Central, the top seed, continues to the final at Lincoln High School in Stockton on Friday, Nov. 28, taking on the number two seed Sonora, which defeated No. 3 seed Los Banos 28-14 in their semifinal meeting. Escalon was the four seed in the playoffs.
Going into the game at Central on Nov. 21, Escalon head coach Mark Loureiro knew his team was “in deep” but also knew they would play their best and leave everything on the field.
“What a great effort by our kids,” Loureiro said. “You couldn’t ask for more than they gave.”
Loureiro said the Cougars would have to play virtually perfect to get past the Raiders, and they had a couple of costly mistakes, just enough to open the door for the Central Catholic team to grab the opportunities and run with them.
After holding the Raiders on the opening kickoff, the Cougars had a short possession that ended with a fumble, the Central team recovering the fumble and turning it in to seven points just a couple of plays later, taking the lead on a 27-yard pass play with 8:13 to go in the first quarter.
Escalon returned the favor a few minutes later, as Central fumbled on a third down play and the Cougars recovered. It took them longer to convert, getting the fumble with 4:48 to play in the first and keeping the ball until the second quarter. Big catches by Brandon Grogan and Sam Lattig on passes from quarterback Caleb Mullen aided the drive, as did a huge fourth down conversion from Hunter Calton. A.J. Camarena took the ball to the 2-yard line on the final play of the first quarter and Wesley Dick ran it in from there on the opening play of the second quarter, completing the 10-play drive. The point after was good and it was 7-7 with 11:57 left in the second.
The elation of tying the game, however, was short-lived as Central returned the ensuing kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown, going up 14-7 with 11:42 left in the half.
The teams then traded some turnovers, Central getting a pick and the Cougars recovering a pair of fumbles, as the second quarter continued but neither team could cash in on those chances. Garrett Nebe put an exclamation point on the first half with a sack of the Central quarterback and the teams were separated by just one touchdown at the half.
Escalon got the kickoff to start the second half and the Cougars opened with a strong drive, including pass receptions by Grogan and Calton to get into scoring position. Dick had his second score of the night, getting in on a second effort from the 1-yard line and David Martinez added the extra point to draw the Cougars even at 14-14 with 9:09 to play in the third quarter.
Central regained the lead on a rushing touchdown with 5:42 to play in the third, up 21-14, and Escalon’s next possession was cut short on an interception and Central’s size and physicality finally started to wear the Cougars down, adding a 10-yard rushing touchdown with 8:47 left in the game. A final touchdown on a quarterback keeper with just over two minutes to play put the game out of reach, 35-14.
“They fought for us right to the end, they held together,” Loureiro said of the finale, adding that the team really supported each other throughout the campaign. “A lot of our juniors and sophomores stepped up.”
The Cougars lost Christian May early in the season, and Loureiro said several players had to help fill the void left by their main scoring threat. They did that and more, he said, accomplishing things most thought they couldn’t, including battling it out for the Trans-Valley League title and getting a playoff victory in the opening round.
“We were flying to the ball,” Loureiro added of Friday’s performance, praising the defensive effort in keeping Central under control while the offense also found the end zone.
Javier Perez had eight tackles and a fumble recovery, A.J. Camarena had seven tackles and a fumble recovery, with six tackles each from Matthew Gallego and Travis Nascimento. Garrett Nebe had a fumble recovery as well.
“There were a lot of great efforts,” Loureiro said.
On the field Friday, following the final seconds tricking off the clock, there were some tears among Cougar players, especially seniors knowing they had played their last game for the purple and gold.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t go any further,” said senior Adam Roberson, putting the loss in perspective. “But we had a lot of great efforts and it’s an honor to be a part of this team, our coach has the most wins in Sac-Joaquin Section history and it is an amazing honor to be part of that.”
Loureiro got that historic win earlier this season, defeating Hilmar for his 262nd career victory, tops in the Section.
Senior quarterback Caleb Mullen said the team felt good coming out of the locker room on Friday, down by one score, and then tied it up but did not have the firepower to hold off Central.
“We played with our hearts, we played with passion,” Mullen said. “Everyone around us was doubting us early … just don’t ever count yourself out.”
Senior Matthew Gallego said playing for Loureiro is special, as is the bond forged with his football ‘brothers’ during the season.
“I just think coach is a great coach, he can make any team awesome,” Gallego said. “For me, this season was educational, and real life, with real life lessons.”
Central Catholic had 309 total yards for the game compared to 170 by Escalon, with the Cougars rushing for 67 yards and passing for 103. Central rushed for 262 yards and passed for 47, while they were penalized six times for 40 yards, Escalon just once for five yards.
The Cougars ended the season with an 8-4 mark overall, second in the TVL at 4-1 and losing in the semifinal round of the playoffs.
“All in all, I am very proud of these kids,” Loureiro said.