Forget that the game was over three hours from home.
Forget that the Escalon Cougars were bumped up two divisions for the NorCal regional finals, playing in Division 4A.
Remember that they took it to the host Pleasant Valley Vikings, outscoring the Chico-based team 28-8 in the second half, to take a 41-17 win off the football field on Saturday night, Dec. 7.
It was almost a home game environment for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 6 champion Cougars, as a huge crowd made its way from Escalon to Chico on Saturday. Kickoff was at 6 p.m. and there were as many – if not more – fans in the stands on the visiting Escalon side as there were for the hometown team. The crowd was loud and the Cougars gave them plenty to cheer about, especially in the second half.
Winning the toss and deferring ensured Escalon got the ball to start the second half and that was just one of many keys that helped the Cougars defeat the Vikings.
While there was plenty of bad weather along the travel route to Chico, the rain held off during the contest and Escalon punched its ticket to the State championship game for Division 4A with the decisive win.
“First off, we’ve got to thank our fans, our community,” head coach Andrew Beam said. “For them to travel more than three hours, the environment that our fans and our cheerleaders brought was outstanding.”
Beam also said many of the football parents got to Chico early to help serve food for the team and several opted to book a hotel for the night, basically turning one of the local hotels into a team hotel where many players and parents stayed.
“Hearing the cheers all game and then all celebrating together afterwards, that really sums up our community,” Beam said.
The game itself saw the Cougars get on the board first, Kaden Christensen scoring with 6:40 to go in the first. The extra point was no good but Escalon had the early 6-0 lead.
Pleasant Valley countered with a 40-yard field goal with 2:10 play in the first, cutting the Escalon lead to 6-3.
In the second quarter, the home team took the lead with 9:04 to go, connecting on a 14-yard pass play. The kick was no good, putting the Vikings up 9-6. Then a sustained drive by Escalon saw first downs from Christensen, Luke Anderson and Bryan Hale, along with a huge first down reception by Kaidence Trejo from Ty Harris to set up a 22-yard touchdown run by Colton Panero. This time the kick by Brayan Barrientos was good and with 2:52 to go in the first half, the Cougars were back on top, 13-9.
“That was a six-minute drive to take the lead, an 84-yard drive,” Beam said of when he felt the momentum shifting as the Cougars started to take control. “Then the drive coming out at halftime; that was a seven-minute drive that went 80 yards, that opening drive of the third quarter set the tone for the rest of the game.”
It was Panero who shook off would-be Viking tacklers to power into the end zone, including one that grabbed him up in a horse collar just as he crossed into the end zone for the score. The kick by Brayan Barrientos was good and the Cougars went up 20-9 in the third quarter.
From there, they were virtually unstoppable – except by the refs, who threw multiple penalty flags throughout the night. The Vikings had more yardage on Cougar penalties than they did as a team but Beam said Escalon persevered and answered the call every time the flags were thrown.
After a Vikings possession, the Cougars mounted the decisive drive of the game, with Trejo pulling in the pass over top of the defender as they fought for it in the end zone. It was Trejo who came away with it on the 26-yard pass from Harris and, with the point after, it was a 27-9 lead with just 32 seconds left in the third.
Fourth quarter scores for Escalon came from Christensen, pulling in a 9-yard pass from Harris, kick good, to go up 34-9 and Anderson putting the final one in the books on a 9-yard run, kick good, to make it 41-9 with 8:08 to go in the game.
Pleasant Valley tacked on a late score and a two-point conversion to make it 41-17 with 5:02 to go and tried the onside kick, but the Cougars recovered the ball. Though the teams traded a couple more possessions, the Escalon defense did not yield any more points and the Cougars got the NorCal regional championship victory.
“It feels amazing,” said Hale. “We were going in thinking they were going to be big but we knew we would be faster and quicker. The support was awesome and I think as we soon as we scored in the second half, we knew we had it.”
Trejo echoed the sentiments, thanking the crowd for the “insane” support and dedication they showed, driving three-plus hours for the contest.
“We knew it would be a very physical game,” Trejo added. “But our linemen opened up the holes for us.”
David Camacho, one of this year’s captains, said heading next to the State title game is “a dream come true” and he also offered special tanks to trainers Travis Bartelink and Bob McCune for their efforts in keeping the team healthy and ready to go this season.
Junior quarterback Harris, who missed on his first three throws of the night, said once he settled in, it was business as usual.
“I was nervous at first,” he admitted, but said having the protection from his offensive line helped give him time to find receivers and make smart decisions. “Now to be able to have another game with these seniors on Engel Field, I can’t wait.”
Junior Anderson said Pleasant Valley was a tough, physical team but “we got a good push” and the line provided plenty of blocking for him to gain yards up the middle.
“It was crazy fun,” Anderson said.
Harris was 9-for-14 for 131 yards and two touchdown passes. Christensen had 15 carries for 122 yards and a touchdown, five catches with one for a touchdown and Panero had 96 rushing yards with a pair of scores.
Defensively, Jacob Walden had eight tackles and two sacks, Christensen had an interception and Levi Hale had a fumble recovery.
“We earned this,” said senior Johnny Santos, noting that the team has been working together, many of them since their Outlaw days, to get to a state title game.
Santos, in fact, had a big tackle for loss while Shane Campbell had a big hit on a kickoff return, both making a difference in the fourth quarter.
“Our defense has just played amazing and this was just another great performance all the way around,” Beam noted. “I can’t say how happy and proud I am of these kids; we’re looking forward to one more game.”
Escalon will host the State Division 4A championship game with a 6 p.m. kickoff at Engel Field on Saturday, Dec. 14.