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Nailbiter - Cougars Clamp Down To Take Win In Hilmar
There probably weren't many fingernails left among the thousands of fans in the stands on Friday night, as the varsity Escalon Cougars held off a talented Hilmar team, 10-0, to claim a share of the Trans-Valley League title.

The Cougars can earn the crown outright with a win at home over Modesto Christian on Nov. 4 but this past Friday night was all about getting past the host Yellowjackets.

"I was thinking it was going to take three touchdowns to win," head coach Mark Loureiro admitted. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think we were going to shut them out."

Loureiro said Hilmar is a top notch team and even though his Cougars won, it was a down-to-the-wire battle, with the Escalon team one bad penalty or one turnover away from letting Hilmar right back in the game.

"I knew they were a good offensive team but they kind of caught me by surprise, I didn't realize that they were as good a defensive team as they were," he explained.

Escalon won the toss and deferred, as is typical for the Cougars. That meant the defense would have to take the field first and get the crucial initial stop of the game.

After a nice return by the Yellowjackets on the kickoff and one series that resulted in a first down, the Cougars got the ball. On a big hit from Shane Silveira, the ball from the Hilmar quarterback was picked off by Gino Franceschetti, giving the Cougars possession at the 32-yard line and stopping a potential game-opening scoring drive by the host team. A short-lived possession saw the Cougars give the ball back on a fumble and Hilmar parlayed that chance into a 42-yard field goal attempt, which went wide right and kept them off the scoreboard.

A couple of traded possessions later, Travis James jumped on a loose ball and recovered the fumble, giving Escalon good field position near midfield with just a couple of minutes remaining in the first quarter. A facemask penalty against Hilmar marched off some important yards and quarterback Franceschetti found junior Alec Von Alvensleben, who had a half step on his defender and pulled in a 29-yard pass in the corner of the end zone for the score. Franceschetti added the point after for a 7-0 Cougar lead with 29 seconds left in the first quarter.

Escalon's other score came with 3:10 to go in the second quarter, after a nice drive that saw another catch by Von Alvensleben along with some punishing rushing yards earned by Matt Roberson and Josh Miguel, result in a field goal. On a fourth and 4, the Cougars set up for a 42-yard attempt and Franceschetti nailed it with yards to spare. That gave the visiting Cougars a 10-0 lead and Hilmar didn't get much going offensively the rest of the first half, trailing at halftime. They also were kept out of the red zone by the Cougars, never getting inside the 20.

"Once we got the lead, I knew it was going to be a battle of field position," Loureiro explained. "We had to not turn the ball over and you could see, our defense just took over the game.

"The defense saved our bacon more than once."

Keying that defensive effort were Tony Vincent, two sacks; Shane Silveira and Alan Gonzales, one sack each; Travis James, five tackles and a fumble recovery; and Ian Fitzgerald, with a number of tackles as well.

"Travis had by far his best game of the year and Ian was solid," Loureiro said. "That team, Hilmar, is averaging 48 points per game and I would bet you that you'd have to go deep into their history to find the last time they were shut out at home. Our defense just frustrated them. I knew our defense was good, I just didn't realize how good it was."

Offensively, Von Alvensleben had three big catches, including a crossing route to set up Franceschetti's field goal attempt, and the catch in the end zone.

There wasn't much of a rushing attack, though Roberson and Miguel did chew up some yards, and Franceschetti had a big play in the final quarter, scrambling for a key first down that kept the Yellowjackets offense off the field.

"I knew Hilmar would bring it to us," Franceschetti said of the tough, hard-hitting contest. "We definitely prepared for them and our defense, you can't say enough about them, stepping up and getting the shut out."

Franceschetti had a stellar game, doing all the little things right that paved the way to the win.

As Loureiro noted, he doesn't always show up on the stat sheet but the players and fans who know the game are aware of what he did.

Scrambling, making plays on defense, finding his player in the end zone and drilling a strike for the lone touchdown of the night, staying calm and collected on the field goal attempt - all those factors adding up to a huge individual effort.

"He intercepts a pass that probably would have been a touchdown for them, he throws a touchdown and then kicks the extra point, he kicks a 42-yard field goal with 10 yards to spare, he gets a key first down in the fourth quarter," Loureiro explained. "He had three punts over 45 yards and the last one died on the 5-yard line. He hurt them in so many ways, there's no question how valuable Gino was."

The senior quarterback said it was extremely satisfying to win at least a share of the title with the road victory and he thanked the fans for being behind the team.

Defensive standout Travis James admitted to being tired after the contest, but in a good way.

"Other than Patterson, this is the first really physical team we've played," he said. "They're good."

James added that they knew they had a chance for the win when they got on the scoreboard, as long as the defense did its job.

"I wasn't expecting a high scoring game," James said.

For senior Daniel Alcantor, there were some nerves to start, but once the game got under way, he and his teammates found their focus.

"We came out and did what we had to do," Alcantor said.

He said watching films of Hilmar helped get them prepared.

"You get to know the players' moves, you pick up on their habits," he said "They were a very good opponent."

While there was some celebrating with the share of the title, no players want to have a letdown for this week's regular season finale at home.

"We don't want to get too caught up in it, we just need to keep moving forward," said Shane Silveira.

He also pointed to the team depth as being key and said the squad members have become "brothers on the field" and are eager to head into the playoffs on a high note.

"This is a great confidence boost," added senior Ian Fitzgerald. "It feels really good, taking the TVL, especially with a shutout. But we have to make sure there is no letdown."

Tony Vincent classified Friday's clash with Hilmar as "one of the hardest games all year" and said it was hard hitting for four quarters.

Escalon had 145 yards of offense, 84 rushing yards on 43 carries and 61 passing yards on three-of-six completions.

They had two penalties for 10 yards, earned 11 first downs and lost two fumbles. Hilmar had six first downs, 139 total yards with 100 passing yards on 10-of-28 completions.

They rushed 20 times for 39 yards and fumbled three times, losing it once. Franceschetti and Miguel each had an interception and the Yellowjackets were penalized six times for 50 yards.

"This is a great, friendly rivalry and this is what high school sports is all about, each is a one-school town, people supporting their team, great sportsmanship, great atmosphere," Loureiro said. "Hilmar is going to make some noise in the playoffs and we just might see this team again."