The only unfair thing about Friday night’s football game was that more people couldn’t be in the stands.
With attendance limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was plenty of room to stretch out in The Corral in Oakdale on March 19. Those in the stands, however, were treated to a match-up of two elite small school programs. And the teams taking the field didn’t disappoint.
“The last team with the ball was going to win, that’s truthfully how I felt,” Escalon head coach Andrew Beam said of the contest, which ended with a 38-35 decision in host Oakdale’s favor.
The Mustangs were able to convert a third down play to get a new set of downs in the final minutes, keeping the ball and holding on for the three-point victory.
“There’s not enough time in this interview to talk about all the kids that need mentioning; I am just so proud,” Beam indicated during a Sunday night interview with The Times to review the contest. “They fought with everything they had.”
The game, pitting the Valley Oak League Mustangs against the Trans-Valley League Cougars, is something that hadn’t happened in more than 40 years. It is a game many had wanted to see, as the teams have typically been among the elite in their respective leagues and have also brought home state championships and multiple Section titles to their communities.
Escalon, in fact, is a defending state champion but lost many of those players to graduation.
Still, Beam said the team – without the benefit of even one scrimmage and not having played a game in 400-plus days – came out swinging.
“We had new names with the same level of play,” Beam sad, pointing out that he had 18 new players and four sophomores starting on offense.
They also had to bring up sophomore center Hunter Budd – who had never taken a varsity snap – and put him on the field to handle all the work snapping the ball to senior quarterback Ty Harris on Friday night.
A late reversal of a California Department of Public Health ruling allowed cheerleaders to be at the game and Escalon also had a small but very vocal crowd in the stands.
After winning the toss, the Cougars scored on their first possession of the game.
“It was on a Luke Anderson 10-yard run; he jumped over, spun around and ran through people,” Beam said.
Brayan Barrientos clanged the extra point off both uprights but it went through for an early 7-0 lead.
Oakdale answered and it was 7-7. After Escalon had to punt the ball away on their next possession, Oakdale scored on an 8-yard pass play with the point after good to go up 14-7.
Anderson then found the end zone again on a 3-yard run with the kick good for a 14-14 tie.
Oakdale took a 17-14 lead with a late second quarter field goal and extended the lead with a rushing touchdown to open up the third quarter. With the point after, they went up 24-14.
But the Cougars got back into the end zone again as well, after a great catch by Matthew Baptista on a Harris pass got them to the 3-yard line, Anderson rumbled in for the score. The point after attempt was no good, making it 24-20.
Oakdale would score twice more in the third quarter, on a 10-yard run with the kick good, 31-20 and then on a pick-6 late in the third to go up 38-20.
“There was just a moment of mental toughness for our team then, down 38-20,” Beam said of looking at the huge deficit with just one quarter of football left to play.
He said it could have gone either way; the tired out, playing both ways Cougars could have packed it in … or they could have continued to fight.
In true championship fashion, Escalon fought back.
“We went five plays and got a 1-yard touchdown run from Ty Harris with a 2-point conversion catch from EJ Lewis, that made it 38-28,” Beam said. “We then got a huge stop by our defense and we went another seven or eight plays and Ty again scored on a 1-yard run with the kick good.”
That cut the deficit to 38-35 with 4:34 to play in the contest.
“We tried the onside kick but we didn’t quite get the bounce we needed,” Beam explained.
The Cougars then focused on defense, trying to stop the Mustangs and get the ball back with some time left on the clock.
“On a third and 4, they were able to draw us offside to get the first down and seal the game,” Beam said.
And despite the loss, the coach said both teams came out with a huge amount of respect for each other and what they are capable of on the field.
He said he and Oakdale head coach Trent Merzon agreed at halftime that they were in the midst of a classic; a game that more than lived up to its potential … and all the pre-game hype.
For the Cougars, Luke Anderson had 16 rushes for 92 yards and three touchdowns on the night to lead the charge.
“Every one of those yards, he was running through, over and by people, he showed why he is one of the best in the area,” Beam said. “And our quarterback, Ty Harris, had one of the best quarterback performances I have ever seen in Escalon.”
Harris was 17-for-23 for 283 yards and had 43 yards rushing with two touchdowns.
“He was on the money with his throws, and his toughness that night was unbelievable, along with his play,” said Beam.
Top receivers were Eli Lattig, 3 catches for 94 yards; sophomore Owen Nash, 5-for-46; sophomore Matthew Baptista, 3-for-70; Logan Webster, 3-for-53 and EJ Lewis, 3-for-20. All made crucial catches to extend drives and set up touchdowns.
Defensively, Tyler Medina had 12 tackles, Luke Anderson added nine, EJ Lewis eight, and Shane Campbell and Matthew Baptista each had seven. Logan Webster had a sack.
“We got good minutes from JP Lial and Caden Gonzalves,” added Beam. “Demetrius Teixeira anchored the line all night, offensively and defensively, and he, Evan Foley and Nathan Chavez never came off the field.”
Though emotional after the loss, Anderson and Harris – both of whom are serving as team captains this season – agreed getting back on the field was a joy and battling the Mustangs in the tight contest showed that the Cougars remain a force to be reckoned with, whether it is in the TVL or, for this year, the Valley Oak League.
“This was an absolute prize fight,” Beam agreed.