One muffed punt and a fourth down conversion that fell just a couple of yards shy proved to be the difference between a win and a loss.
Escalon’s varsity football team lost Friday night’s non-league game against visiting Liberty Ranch, 26-21, though the Cougars battled down to their final play.
“I’m very proud of the kids,” said head coach Mark Loureiro. “We had fight in us, I saw a look in their eyes that I hadn’t seen before … I’m real proud of them and that game made us so much better.”
Coming in, it looked like the contest might be a mismatch, with Escalon not sure how they would stack up against a fast, tough opponent. Turns out, they matched up well, and even got on the board first.
Kicking off to the visitors, the Cougar defense got the stop and the offense then made a statement as well, marching down the field for the score. Tim Costa went in from four yards out and Rodrigo DeMelo added the point after for a 7-0 Escalon lead.
Liberty Ranch answered with a pair of scores before the first quarter ended, getting a 57 yard run, kick good and a 31-yard pass play, kick good, to take a 14-7 lead.
A 1-yard plunge from Tim Costa in the second quarter, kick good by DeMelo, evened the score at 14-14. That score was set up by a huge 37-yard pass play from Dylan Azevedo to Max Nicholas, the visiting Hawks pulling Nicholas down just shy of the goal line.
A short rush by Liberty Ranch late in the second, kick no good, put the visitors up 20-14 at the half.
Escalon got the second half kickoff and used up some time and made headway but ended up punting it away with 8:30 to go in the third. After the defense got the stop, the Hawks had to punt but the kick was mishandled by Escalon and the Hawks were able to pounce on it deep in Escalon territory. They used that opportunity to punch the ball in to make it 26-14. The 2-point conversion was no good.
In the fourth quarter, after an exchange of possessions, Liberty Ranch had to punt and shanked it, giving Escalon good field position at the 41-yard line. A few plays later, it was C.J. Gumbs running it in from 26 yards out and the kick was good for a 26-21 score.
“It was our best defensive effort of the year,” Loureiro said of the contest, noting that the defense was able to contain a couple of explosive Liberty Ranch runners and frustrate the Hawks. The visitors had to punt midway through the fourth quarter and Escalon went on a potential game winning drive, working the ball methodically down the field, using up the clock as they went. A couple of big completions and some tough rushing yardage seemed to be turning the tide Escalon’s way, but then a couple of penalties put them at a fourth and 22 on the Hawks’ 44-yard line. A completion to Tyler Voral along the sideline got close to the first down and Voral tried to power his way for a couple more, but was stopped two yards short of the marker. That turned the ball over on downs to Liberty Ranch and, with time running down, they were able to take the knee to preserve the win.
“We played better assignment football, we moved some kids around and that made a difference; kids were much more comfortable,” Loureiro said of having players settle in to their roles. “Tyler Voral had five unassisted tackles and was solid at outside linebacker, Bo Capps at inside linebacker had five tackles, Tyler Swinford and Mark DeHaven are getting better each week.”
Providing some spark off the bench were Logan Avara and Trent Cummings, coming in to help out.
“That botched punt return took the wind out of our sails,” admitted Loureiro.
Cleaning up miscues and staying on blocks just a little longer, he added, might have meant a Cougar win instead of a loss.
Nevertheless, he said the team did get better and that will serve them well as the season moves along.
Costa was the leading rusher, 30 carries for 147 yards and two touchdowns; Azevedo was 6-for-14 for 126 yards at quarterback.
“He made big plays in critical situations,” Loureiro said of his QB.
Gumbs had 12 carries for 71 yards and three catches for 63 yards, Nicholas had a 37-yard reception to set up a score.
“Max blocked well as a wide receiver as well,” said Loureiro. “We pushed them (Liberty Ranch) around more than I thought we would … it was a game that slipped through our fingers.”
Escalon had 350 yards of offense, 224 on the ground and 126 through the air; Liberty Ranch had 245 yards of offense, 208 rushing and 37 on a pair of completions.
“We had our shots down to the last few seconds,” the coach added of his team giving it their all for a full four quarters. “They were hurting after the game; I told them you hurt because you care.”
Escalon now gets ready to host Patterson on Friday night, Sept. 23 in the Homecoming game.