When it came down to the end, the third extra point of the night off the foot of Rodrigo DeMelo made the difference. DeMelo hit all three extra points after Cougar touchdowns on Friday night; visiting Liberty hit just two of three and Escalon walked off a 21-20 winner.
For a team that is still trying to find its rhythm on defense and has been hit and miss offensively, the win in the home opener brought a bit of satisfaction.
“We’ve got to get better on defense, we’re young but we’re playing too much on our heels, we need to do a better job tackling,” said head coach Mark Loureiro. “Offensively, we need to find a few more weapons.”
On Friday night, three touchdowns were enough but the Cougars are about to hit their toughest stretch of the season, hosting Liberty Ranch out of Galt on Friday night, Sept. 16 then bringing Patterson in for the Homecoming game on Sept. 23. A bye week follows, then the team will be back in action to start Trans-Valley League play on Oct. 7, facing Hilmar.
“Those are the best three teams on our schedule,” the coach noted.
Tim Costa had a great night for the Cougars, rushing the ball 31 times for 194 yards and a touchdown. C.J. Gumbs had 15 carries for 62 yards and two touchdowns. Max Nicholas had three catches on the night for 15 yards.
Gumbs got Escalon on the board in the first quarter on a 6-yard run and the kick by DeMelo was good. Liberty answered back with a 4-yard run, kick good, to tie the game at 7-7.
A 43-yard rushing touchdown by Costa in the second quarter, kick good, made it 14-7 Escalon, but Liberty returned the favor with a 2-yard plunge by their quarterback, kick good, for a 14-14 tie.
Just before halftime, Gumbs broke through on a 12-yard run and the kick was good, sending Escalon to the locker room with a 21-14 edge.
“In the third quarter, Liberty scored on a 5-yard run but their kicker kicked it low,” Loureiro said, with that missed extra point looming large. “Give Rodrigo the credit; that was a nice job by him to get all three extra points, at the start of a game you don’t think that’s going to make the difference.”
Escalon converted on a risky fourth down play midway through the fourth quarter, opting to go for it short of midfield. They made it and used that strategy to keep taking time off the clock and methodically moving down the field.
In the final series, the Cougars were able to take a knee a couple of times to preserve the win.
“It was a real clean game, we kept ourselves out of trouble,” Loureiro explained. “All in all, we’ll take the win.”
Escalon had 18 first downs and 321 total yards. They had 58 rushes for 306 yards, quarterback Dylan Azevedo completed 3-of-6 passes for 15 yards and had one pass intercepted. The Cougars fumbled once but recovered it and were penalized just once for five yards.
Liberty had 11 first downs, 221 total yards. The Hawks rushed 32 times for 145 yards and completed 5-of-10 pass attempts for 76 yards. Liberty did not fumble the ball and was penalized four times for 30 yards.
“We ran 64 plays to their 42,” Loureiro said. “That really was the difference.”
The coach also pointed to a loud, supportive crowd and a strong student cheering section, as well as the return of defensive line coach Ray Scott as figuring in to the victory.
For Costa, he was happy to play a part in securing the win.
“I wanted to just run and get yards,” he said. “This was a game we had to get; we definitely wanted to go into next week off a win.”
Quarterback Azevedo said while the victory was a step in the right direction, he knows there is plenty more work to do.
“We’ve got to play a way better ball game that that,” he said of what the Cougars will need to do against Liberty Ranch to be competitive this week. “We need to show up more, play a full four quarters.”
Jake Lewis said after taking a loss the previous week at Calaveras, the Cougars wanted to have a strong showing for their first home contest. He also said it had some wide-ranging implications.
“This game was going to decide how our season was going to go,” he said, explaining that a win would set the team on to the tough part of their schedule with some confidence and the desire to work even harder.
“I exhausted myself in the first half,” he admitted, getting in on several defensive stops. “We worked hard enough to get the win, that’s what matters most.”
Loureiro pointed to the work of the offensive line on Friday night as being key, including the performances of Bo and Blue Capps, Jacob Alvarado, Chance Bollen, Tyler Voral and Stephen Mendez. He also said some players coming off the bench helped make a difference, including Trent Cummings, Brandon Levin and Eduardo Maruffo.
“Defensively, Voral had 11 tackles, Tyler Swinford had 10 tackles, Bo Capps and Chance Bollen shared a sack,” said Loureiro.
Now at 2-1, the Cougars get ready to host a tough Liberty Ranch team on Friday night, Sept .16. Varsity kickoff will be about 7:30 p.m.