Pick a hero. Any hero.
There were plenty of them on Friday night for the varsity football Cougars, as the squad started out the 2017 Trans-Valley League campaign with a statement win against longtime rival Hilmar.
The 28-14 victory was made that much sweeter, considering that the Yellowjackets are defending TVL champs, that the game was on the road, that many people pre-judged the Cougars, coming in with a 2-3 mark from the preseason.
Head coach Mark Loureiro said the win was much needed for his team and one they worked hard to achieve.
“This was a classic small school match-up,” Loureiro said. “The sideline was excited, the crowd was into it … it has been a while since we have had a game like this.”
Escalon’s TVL opener was truly a total team effort. There was Max Nicholas, pulling in crucial passes, Steven Grossi staying composed under pressure at quarterback, Jake Lewis powering through the Yellowjacket defense to churn up important yards. Not to mention Kaden Christensen coming back from injury with a vengeance, announcing his presence in the TVL with a few huge punt and kickoff returns to his credit, along with a touchdown.
Defensively, the Cougars gave Hilmar plenty of trouble, with some sacks and a key interception late in the game by Lucca Dutra that sealed the win.
“Then you have our quiet hero, Elliott Mello,” said Loureiro. “He had seven tackles, and was our offensive leading rusher.”
Basically, added the coach, the game came down to everyone on the roster doing their job, making sure they didn’t let down until the final whistle.
The teams battled through a scoreless first quarter and Escalon finally broke out on top with a score in the second quarter, Christensen going in from three yards out after setting up the Cougars in good field position on a 50-yard punt return. Rodrigo DeMelo came on to put through the first of his four successful extra points on the night for a 7-0 Cougar lead.
“We came out and played inspired defense in the first half,” Loureiro said. “There was more intensity, more focus. Our defense gave our offense chances.”
Though dominating the first half of play, Escalon was up just by the 7-0 score. They made it 14-0 in the third quarter, Hugo Alcala going in from 10 yards out.
But Hilmar answered back, getting a score late in the third and capitalizing early in the fourth to knot the game at 14-14.
“You saw that momentum swing,” Loureiro admitted of Hilmar gaining steam. “But the kids answered the call; I’m proud of them.”
Nash Satnat got into the scoring column, collecting a 10-yard pass from Grossi with 8:27 to play in the fourth to put Escalon back on top, 21-14 and then Mello broke free for a 40-yard touchdown run to make it 28-14 with 2:48 to go.
A late Hilmar drive was stopped when Dutra dove for a tipped Yellowjacket pass, gathering it in as he tumbled to the ground, coming up triumphantly with the ball held high, knowing the Cougar win had just been sealed. From there, the Cougars lined up in victory formation for two snaps, running out the clock.
“I feel like we’ve been looked down upon ever since last year,” Elliott Mello said of the team following Friday’s win. “This was important, we needed to make a statement, send a message.”
Jake Lewis added that, even when Hilmar tied the score, the Cougars didn’t let that rattle them.
“We’ve been in battles this season a lot of the time, we came back in the second half against Patterson, scored all our points in that game in the second half; I feel we had the experience to take the momentum back,” he explained of putting Hilmar away. “It gave me a whole new love for football.”
There was plenty of excitement on the sidelines and vocal support from the crowd, the air tinged with anticipation of a Cougar victory on the road.
“I’m just fortunate, have been able to keep working and I thank God that all of them went in,” Rodrigo DeMelo said of hitting all the points after touchdown, adding a word of thanks for all his teammates as well, pulling together for the win.
Coming off an injury that sidelined him for nearly a month, Kaden Christensen said he was excited to be part of such a huge step forward for the team and wants to make the most of his first year at the varsity level in the TVL.
For Lucca Dutra, the interception that sealed the win literally took his breath away.
“I couldn’t even breathe,” he admitted, smiling “I wasn’t really thinking before that play but when I got the ball, I knew it was over ... it was the greatest feeling.”
Max Nicholas may not have gotten into the end zone but his receptions kept drives alive and got the Cougars into scoring position.
“This was absolutely huge,” he said of taking down the defending TVL champions. “We had three tough losses in the preseason and they taught us a lot.”
Loureiro agreed that the preseason schedule is intended to sharpen the skill and toughen the team.
“Hilmar came back so quick but I think it speaks a lot about the kids, how they came back,” he said of the Cougar response.
A key play came early in the fourth quarter, after Hilmar tied the game, with the Cougars looking at a third down and four yards to go. Jake Lewis got the call and charged ahead, carrying a pile of Hilmar defenders with him past the first down marker, setting up the eventual go-ahead score.
“Defensively, you look at Ethan Krieger, Rhys Panero, Estephan Salcedo, they all had big tackles, stopped kick-offs and punt returns,” said Loureiro. “We also had three sacks; one from Jake Lewis, Trent Cummings and Jacob Walden, Dutra had that big interception.”
Mello was the leading rusher, 15 carries for 108 yards; Lewis had 52 tough yards. Grossi was 4-for-9 for 79 yards in passing, including 3-for-3 in the fourth quarter. Satnat had 10 tackles and blocked well on offense, Salcedo had nine tackles.
Escalon had 221 rushing yards and 300 total yards and was penalized just one time for 15 yards. Hilmar had 227 total yards, 115 rushing and 112 passing on 10 completions. They hurt themselves with penalties, 10 for 75 yards.
“Max Nicholas had two big catches that set up touchdowns for us, we were 6-for-9 in third down conversions; they were 1-for-7; those are the little things that win,” Loureiro said.
Though satisfying, the coach and players know this was just one win and the work is just beginning. They will host Mountain House in their Homecoming game on Friday, Oct. 13.
“I’m proud of a lot of kids here, it felt like old times,” added Loureiro. “This was a hard fought game and we came out on top.”