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Raiders Can't Hold Lead - Second Half Attack Lifts Cougars To Win
A more than capacity crowd at Escalon's Engel Field didn't have much to holler about until late in the second quarter of Friday's semifinal playoff game. But when they got to their feet, it was to cheer on the Cougars as they battled back from a 17-0 deficit to defeat Central Catholic 24-17.

The victory, snatched from what looked like a sure Raider win, vaulted Escalon into the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV finals Friday night at Lincoln High School in Stockton. They will face Hilmar - a 37-7 winner over Liberty Ranch in the other semifinal - for the Section title.

Early on, it was all Central Catholic on Nov. 25, as the Raiders hammered away on the Cougars to the tune of a 17-0 lead.

"On film, it was like watching two different games," explained head coach Mark Loureiro of Friday's semifinal at home against the visiting Central Catholic squad.

"We weren't even in the ball game for the first quarter and a half," Loureiro admitted. "They were handing us our heads, running right through us, doing whatever they wanted."

The Raider offense was clicking, Escalon was unable to get a stop and the visiting team was doing to the Cougars what they had been doing to opponents all season long - hitting them hard and pushing them around at the line of scrimmage.

Craig Jones went in from 2 yards out with 15 seconds left in the first quarter for the first score of the night and Central had an early 7-0 lead. They made it 10-0 on a field goal with 7:15 to go in the first half, converting from 24 yards.

Escalon's usually sure-handed Josh Miguel was hammered on the next series and it forced a fumble, which Central recovered to set up their next score, a scrambling Chris Sauls able to escape a potential sack and find Ray Lomas for a 35-yard scoring strike with 5:40 to play in the half. With the point after, it was a 17-0 lead and a hushed crowd on the home sideline, while the visiting crowd was rocking.

But then Matt Roberson dug deep and started the tide turning, breaking loose on a 62-yard carry on the Cougars' next possession to get the crowd on its feet and the sideline back in the game.

"When Matt broke that run, it woke our sideline up, it woke up the crowd and we went in at halftime down 17-7," Loureiro said.

After Roberson's big run got them to the 20-yard line, he carried it again a couple of times, once for a first down conversion and Miguel took it to the 4, with Roberson then scoring from 4 yards out. The kick was good by Gino Franceschetti and it was 17-7 with 2:41 left in the half.

Two huge defensive plays kept the Raiders from scoring again in the half, with Alan Gonzalez registering a sack and Miguel pulling down an interception on the final play of the half.

"We were thinking, just don't quit," Roberson said of the mindset of the Cougars at halftime. "The second half, we knew we needed to pick it up, offensively and defensively, take the plays upon yourself."

To a man, every player did just that in the second half, making sure no assignments were missed, that no Raider went unpunished.

"The end of the second quarter, we started stepping up," added Travis James, who was double teamed much of the night but still had an impact. "We got into our groove."

Quarterback Franceschetti said once the team started clicking, got the score and the defensive stop, they didn't want to leave the field for halftime.

"We just wanted to get back on the field," he said. "Everyone dug down, deep in their hearts, we started hitting them hard."

Loureiro said coaches issued the team a challenge in the locker room.

"We were outplayed, out hit. We challenged our kids, all year, we told them, it has been us punishing teams," he said. "We stressed getting the next score, down 17-7, we squared up our linebackers a little more and it was gut check time."

Central, so pumped up in the first half, felt the wrath of the Cougars in the second half, held out of the end zone, and picking up just 32 yards and two first downs the entire second half.

The Cougars, meanwhile, started riding the capable back of Roberson, who ended the game with 17 carries for 186 yards and three touchdowns. He scored on a 37-yard run in the third quarter with 7:01 to play and then a Joey Ratto interception set up the tying 32-yard field goal by Franceschetti with 9:48 to play in the game, making it 17-17.

"They (Central) did a good job of shutting Josh down, though he had some key first downs and big catches for us," Loureiro said. "Matt took over, he had some beautiful runs in critical situations and Gino was Gino, he found a way to win, he maintained control out there."

The Cougars threw in a few trick plays, two that worked well and one that went for a touchdown but was called back by officials after a lengthy conference, deemed a 'deception' play because Central was caught unaware on a fake field goal. Franceschetti threw a pop pass to the sideline for Phil Kimble, who raced in for the score after acting as if he was running off for the tee, but it was disallowed.

Still, the defense of the Cougars held tight and the Raiders sputtered in their final possession, including a sack of the quarterback by Shane Silveira.

"It was the greatest feeling in the world," Silveira said. "I had been trying to get him all night."

Senior Gilberto Mancilla was also proud to be a part of the comeback victory.

"We just thought, at half, how we beat this team last year," he said, adding that the team just prepared for battle in the second half, going all out.

"There's nothing better than to see your teammates, your brothers, score," Mancilla said.

Senior Ian Fitzgerald said it was important for the players to keep their heads up and prepare for the second half.

"We knew it would be a dog fight," he said. "We just had to keep fighting, we couldn't let up."

Escalon had 271 yards on the night, Central 230 with Miguel and Ratto intercepting passes, Ratto getting a fumble recovery. Escalon lost three of four fumbles, Central completed 10-of-25 pass attempts, Escalon 6-for-13 with one interception. Alec Von Alvensleben had two catches for 24 yards, Miguel two 2-for-45.

The offensive line again got high marks for their work, especially in the second half, and defensive leaders were Silveira with nine tackles and one sack, Roberson with eight tackles, Franceschetti with seven tackles and David Gonzales with six. Mancilla had a solid game at his inside linebacker position and the 'big rig' group of Robbie Steves, Joey Gutierrez and Alejandro Ortega also did solid work in the contest.

"When we tied it up, 17-17, with nine minutes to go, I thought overtime was a good possibility," Loureiro admitted. "When we took the lead with just over five minutes left, I felt if we could get a stop, we could get the ball back and run out the clock."

That's the way it played out, with the Raiders missing on three pass attempts and taking a sack in their final possession. The hard fought victory puts Escalon into the Section championship game, where they look to defend the crown they won a year ago.

Game time Friday is 7:30 p.m. at Lincoln High School in Stockton.