Down by a pair of touchdowns early, Escalon allowed just those two first quarter scores and battled back to break through for a touchdown of their own, but could not get the equalizer and fell 14-7 to Hilmar on Friday night.
The loss in the second round of the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs ended Escalon’s season, the Cougars bowing out with a 7-5 mark, Hilmar moving on with its unbeaten streak (now 12-0) intact.
“The kids played their hearts out,” Escalon head coach Mark Loureiro said of the 2013 Cougars.
A vocal Hilmar crowd saw the host Yellowjackets score the first touchdown with less than five minutes off the clock. Escalon lost the toss and received the ball but went three and out. The punt was fumbled by the Hilmar receiver and it was nearly recovered by the Cougars punt team, but was kicked away at the last second and the Yellowjackets were able to dive on it. The first Yellowjacket drive, however, ended with a 13-yard touchdown toss from Jonathan O’Brien to Kenny Camden and the kick after made it 7-0. The Cougars were called for ‘roughing the snapper’ on the extra point attempt so Hilmar had to take it twice, but converted with 8:42 to go in the first.
Escalon made little headway on its next possession, with some rushing plays unable to gain much traction after a solid return by Christian May got them started at the 30-yard line. A short punt on fourth and 6 put Hilmar at the 48-yard line, back in business near midfield. It was a quick pass completion by O’Brien and then a short rush by the signal caller to make it 13-0 with 4:05 to go in the first. The point after upped the Hilmar lead to 14-0 and it looked like the Yellowjackets were ready for a rout.
But Escalon’s defense had other ideas and the team never allowed the Jackets back in the end zone the rest of the way, shutting them out for three-plus quarters.
“We got down early 14-0 but the kids dug in,” said Loureiro. “With teams like Hilmar, you’re so close, but so far away.”
Loureiro said Escalon knew they had to have a near perfect game to defeat Hilmar and they had some costly penalties, some dropped passes and some bad breaks along the way.
“We got some great efforts,” the coach noted. “Frankie Bavaro had 21 carries for 132 yards and did a great job inside. Collin Strasser on defense had one of the best games I’ve ever seen a kid have here; he was a one-man wrecking crew with 14 tackles and five sacks. Lance Davis had another solid game with nine tackles; it was great to see our seniors play so hard.”
Perhaps most telling was the fact that the Cougars did not get down on themselves when it was 14-0 in the first quarter. They just strapped on the helmets and got back in, doing battle with the opponent across the line of scrimmage. The Cougars got their first first down of the night with a rush by Bavaro with 9:57 to play in the second quarter and a long pass intended for Brandon Grogan down the sideline was batted away at the last second, keeping the Cougars near midfield on that possession and eventually forcing another punt.
The teams battled, trading possessions through the rest of the first half, the Cougars leaving down by just two scores and with time to make the adjustments for the second half.
Hilmar students spilled out of the stands following the cheerleading routines at halftime, forming a tunnel for their players and Escalon, not to be outdone, followed suit, cheering on the Cougars as they made their way back onto the field for the second half.
A scoreless third quarter again saw the teams trading possessions and it was during this quarter that Strasser poured it on, making a couple of huge hits to drive back the Hilmar squad.
Escalon finally broke through in the fourth quarter for a 5-yard rushing touchdown by May, coming with 3:12 to play and Thomas Diniz added the point after for a 14-7 Hilmar lead. The scoring drive featured a couple of controversial plays, with a pass interference penalty called on Hilmar and a disputed call in which a whistle was blown after Bavaro’s forward progress was stopped on a rushing play. He then fumbled the ball and Hilmar picked it up and started to run it back the other way. The refereeing crew could not agree on the call and rather than award either team the play, decided to re-play the down. For Escalon, it kept the drive alive and Hilmar fans loudly protested the decision.
“We got a couple of calls we felt went against us in the first half, they had a couple go against them in the second,” Loureiro said. “It pretty much evened out.”
The Cougar touchdown set up a furious final few minutes, Escalon looking for a way to even the score, Hilmar scrambling to keep them out of the end zone. The Yellowjacket defense came up big then, with a stuff of Bavaro and then a fourth down sack of quarterback Ben Hood on a fourth and 17 that gave possession back to Hilmar with 1:08 to play.
With nothing to do but take a couple of snaps and a knee, Hilmar and Escalon players started shaking hands across the line of scrimmage as time wound down, the Yellowjackets going on and the Cougars preparing to go home.
Coach Loureiro would not let the team hang its collective head in the postgame huddle.
“Most teams would have gotten blown out,” he said of falling behind by two scores in the first eight minutes.
He told the team to hold their heads up, to be proud of the fight they gave and for never quitting on each other.
“That’s a testament to you guys,” he said.
Junior Caleb Mullen, backup quarterback this season, said he hopes the ‘bad taste’ this game left will encourage more work in the weight room from the junior class.
“It’s motivation, we need to get in the weight room, be ready for next season,” Mullen said.
Senior Strasser, in his final game as a Cougar, made his mark in the finale but wanted more.
“We knew we had our backs against the wall, we had a great defensive second half,” he said, adding he felt time just ran out, that the Cougars could have tied the game with one more possession.
“Our defense just kept it alive,” added senior Bavaro. “For three quarters, they shut them out and we just kept pushing on offense. We played with heart.”
Senior Josh Redding, who had some strong punt returns for the Cougars, said the team showed Hilmar what they are made of.
“We weren’t going to give up no matter what,” he said. “At halftime, we had good talks and we got back up, we just got more confident and fought to the end.”
Escalon had 181 yards on the night, 160 of them on the ground on 42 rushing plays and Hood had three completions for 21 yards with one interception. Hilmar had 152 yards, 100 passing on nine completions and 52 yards on the ground on 34 rushes. Hilmar had nine penalties for 90 yards, Escalon eight for 80.
“That’s the thing in the playoffs, somebody wins and somebody goes home,” Loureiro said. “Our team achieved a lot this season, we wanted a .500 season, get to the playoffs, get a playoff win on the road.”
The team met all those goals and had some great battles along the way, noted the coach.
“We played some great football, people got their money’s worth,” Loureiro said.
And though the loss ended their season, Bavaro was able to put it in perspective and wished the Yellowjackets the best.
“I hope they represent the TVL and do well,” Bavaro said.