Friday night had plenty of distractions.
Not only was it the final regular home season game for retiring coach Mark Loureiro – leaving the sidelines as head coach after this season is over – but it was also Senior Night and the game itself had major implications.
A win would give Escalon a share of the Trans-Valley League crown and a trip to the playoffs.
Putting aside all the fanfare and playing in front of a huge crowd that included plenty of former Cougar players who churned up the gridiron under Loureiro’s guidance, the 2017 varsity football Cougars put on a show of dominance over longtime rival Hughson.
When the clock expired, the home team had thumped the Huskies to the tune of a 48-0 shutout, securing a piece of TVL title and putting themselves in a good playoff position. The Cougars will play in Division VI and go in as the number two seed, hosting a first round game this week.
Engel Field was rocking – the crowd was energized, the Cougar pride was evident and the team that found its identity early in the league campaign continued to sharpen its skills against an opponent that had no answers for their attack.
“Man, you couldn’t have asked for anything better,” coach Loureiro admitted of the sweet regular season-ending victory. “It was a fantastic game, we got all the kids involved, which is something you want to do, and it sends those seniors out on a high note, winning the final regular season game at home.”
Loureiro said he was excited for the team as well, with the huge crowd turning out to show their support, and the pre-game ceremonies honoring him for his years of coaching made for a memorable evening.
“It was great, winning the league title, getting back into the playoffs, just a great feeling,” the coach said.
It was also a night where the Cougars introduced their sleek new black uniforms, jerseys and pants, with Escalon on the front but no names on the back, just the jersey numbers.
“Our name was on the front, that’s who we were playing for,” Loureiro said of the players focusing on a team and town win.
The players had been told the new black jerseys would be used for the first time to open the playoffs and so were excited to see them hanging in their lockers when they came to dress for the Friday night contest.
“There was a celebration, it was like we were up two touchdowns just getting dressed,” Loureiro admitted. “Black jerseys make you look bigger and the team played big on Friday night.”
It was the Cougars’ first shutout victory of the season and Loureiro said that was important for a defensive corps that has sometimes come under fire but has really started to turn things around the more the season has progressed.
“Let’s hope this is the start of something good,” he said.
Escalon jumped on the Huskies early, taking the opening kickoff and turning it into a touchdown. It took just four plays for Jake Lewis to find an opening and rumble 53 yards for the score. Rodrigo DeMelo sent through the extra point for a 7-0 lead.
Two more touchdowns would follow in the first quarter, a 1-yard plunge by Lewis, kick good by DeMelo and a 71-yard counter play broken by Kaden Christensen, followed by the DeMelo kick, to make it 21-0 in the first quarter.
The Cougars rolled to a 35-0 halftime lead on two second quarter scores, Christensen pulling in a 13-yard pass from Steven Grossi, kick good by DeMelo and then Elliott Mello broke free up the middle for a 21-yard run to the end zone. With DeMelo’s kick, the rout was on.
“It’s amazing,” said senior DeMelo once the final seconds ticked off the clock. “I love this group, couldn’t ask for better guys.”
Second half action saw the Cougars add one touchdown in the third and a final score in the fourth quarter.
“We have a great team,” added Guillermo Alvarez, who joined last year to help the kicking game and got in on the action with a rushing play on Friday night. “I’m looking forward to playoffs.”
Hugo Alcala found the end zone on a 1-yard dive in the third. The point after attempt failed on a bad snap but it was 41-0 Escalon. In the fourth, scoring the final touchdown of the evening was Jordan Gwartney, going in from 11 yards out. The kick by DeMelo was good for the 48-0 final.
Again, the team was clicking on all cylinders, settling in to the groove that has been working well for them the past few weeks.
“A lot of people have doubted us,” noted senior Rhys Panero. “After the Ripon game, that was a wake-up call. I expected to win tonight, but not by that much.”
Mello was the leading rusher, 13 carries for 140 yards and a touchdown. Gwartney had nine carries for 86 yards and a touchdown, Christensen had four carries for 81 yards and one pass reception for 13 yards, scoring a pair of touchdowns. Lewis had five carries for 70 yards and two scores while Alcala had 10 carries for 69 yards and a touchdown. Max Nicholas caught one pass for 11 yards and the Cougars rolled up some 470-plus yards of offense on the night.
For senior Estephan Salcedo, getting the win was a goal all players were focused on Friday night.
“It feels amazing,” he said. “We were doubted by a lot of people but we had to want this win for ourselves, and ultimately, we had to win for coach and for the town.”
Loureiro said the team did come in with focus and kept their eyes on the game.
“Our front line got a good push all night, we were able to run off tackle and the down blocks were good,” Loureiro said.
The starters and the second unit crew that got in later in the game all did a solid job opening up the holes, noted the coach.
“It makes you feel good as a coach to see that,” Loureiro said of everyone stepping up to contribute. “Defensively, Nash Satnat and Mark DeHaven each had seven tackles and DeHaven had a sack, Elliott Mello and Nick Lattig had sacks. We also had two interceptions, Rhys Panero had one and Estephan Salcedo had his sixth interception of the season.”
The team has also been buoyed by the return of Paul Ayala to the field after having to sit out most of the season with illness. He has come back strong and is an inspirational leader, said Loureiro.
“He brings some intensity, physicality, his energy is contagious and kids elevate their level of play around him,” Loureiro said.
Escalon had 16 first downs on the night, 474 total yards on 450 yards rushing and 24 passing. Hughson had nine first downs and 195 total yards, 135 on the ground and 60 through the air.
Escalon completed 2-of-5 passes, Hughson completed 8-of-21 with two interceptions.
Neither team fumbled the ball. Escalon was penalized three times for 45 yards, Hughson six times for 50.
“It was a clean game, no turnovers for us,” Loureiro said. “We just tried to keep the offense on the field. We’re playing more aggressive on defense, we have started practicing at a different tempo … we’re gaining momentum.”
Escalon will open up the playoffs on Thursday night, Nov. 9 at home hosting the number seven seed, Mariposa Grizzlies. Game time is 7 p.m. at Engel Field; gates will open at 5:45 p.m. and ticket prices for this CIF Sac-Joaquin Section playoff game are $10 for adults, $7 for senior citizens and students kindergarten through 12, children under 5 admitted free.
Mariposa comes in with a record of 5-5 overall and were third in the Southern League. Loureiro expects a physical contest and said the team is relatively young, with three sophomores and several juniors on the roster.
“They run a shotgun spread offense, like Hilmar and Ripon so we have seen that before,” Loureiro said. “But they have a lot of trick plays on special teams and we need to do a little extra preparation for that.”
The Cougars missed the playoffs in both 2015 and 2016 so Loureiro is hoping the crowd will turn out and support the team as they enter the second season.
“They get excited playing for a full house,” the coach said.