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Roller Coaster Ride Thrills Cougars, Fans At Section Final
esc champs
An exhausted but happy group of Cougar players, coaches and support personnel show the Section blue banner and smile for the cameras after claiming the Division 5 crown with a win over Sonora on Saturday night, Nov. 26. - photo by MARG JACKSON

It was as if the entire season was encapsulated into one game.

The ups, the downs, the highs, the lows … the roller coaster that has been the 2022 campaign for the Escalon Cougars varsity football team was on full display Saturday night, Nov. 26. The end result left the team and their fans at the apex of the roller coaster, thrilled with the ride and anticipating what lies ahead.

By the time the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard at St. Mary’s High School in Stockton, the Cougars had a 35-34 victory over powerful Sonora and claimed their third straight Sac-Joaquin Section title. The Cougars earned the Section crown in 2019; there were no playoffs in the COVID-shortened season in 2020. They won the blue banner in 2021 and now, they can add 2022 to the Section banner list.

Head coach Andrew Beam said it was a game for the ages and nothing was decided until the final play.

“When they ran out of time,” Beam said of when he thought the Cougars could beat the relentless Wildcats. “If there was any time left, I was convinced we were going to lose.”

The final quarter, in fact, saw Escalon tie the score on a pick-six to get themselves back in the contest, only to give up an 86-yard run to Sonora that gave them the lead.

But Escalon’s last drive of the game resulted in a touchdown and the extra point, which – after Sonora failed to convert on their extra point on a bad snap – proved to be the difference in a 35-34 win for the Cougars.

However, Sonora got the ball back after Escalon took the lead and had already shown their ability to strike quickly, keeping those on the sidelines and fans in the stands on edge.

The Wildcats did make it to midfield and had a chance for a pass completion that could have set up a field goal attempt, but the ball was batted away by the Cougar defense as the clock ran out.

It was a satisfying win, as well as being historic; this is the first time in the history of Escalon High School that a football team has taken three straight Section titles.

“This one just feels extra special though because of the peaks and valleys of this year,” Beam admitted. “I mean, it was a roller coaster; this game was a roller coaster and then, for it to come full circle with a PAT to win it, it’s just, it’s mind-blowing.”

Two of Escalon’s three losses this season came because they didn’t convert a PAT … they had no such trouble on Saturday night, as Talan Reider hit all five points after touchdown and calmly lined up to kick the biggest one of his career; the one that put the Cougars into the lead and sealed the victory.

Escalon got the first score of the night, albeit on a broken play, Jamin Miller hauling in a pass from quarterback Donovan Rozevink and going in from 64 yards out for the touchdown. Reider added the extra point, it was 7-0 Escalon with 9:01 to go in the first.

“It felt great, it was just that rush of adrenaline that you don’t always feel … I’m very grateful for this opportunity that we’ve been given,” Miller said, adding that he and a teammate crossed up their routes, but he was able to adjust and catch the pass.

Sonora answered back and got a little help on a pass interference call when the defender and receiver got their feet tangled, the Cougar defense signaled for the 15-yard penalty. The Wildcats used that to their advantage and went in on a rushing play for the score, adding the point after, to knot the game 7-7 with 5:39 left in the first.

After a short-lived possession that saw Rozevink sacked, the Cougars had to punt and the Wildcats took over near midfield. They moved it steadily downfield and scored on a QB keeper with the point after good, taking a 14-7 lead with 52 seconds left in the opening frame.

Ryker Peters pulled the Cougars even, converting on a run up the middle, kick good by Reider, to tie it up 14-14 with 10:33 to go in the second quarter.

The teams then traded some possessions before the Wildcats edged ahead.

“That was a big momentum swing,” Beam admitted of the late second quarter touchdown that put Sonora up 21-14 at the half. “We had first and 10 on their 30, we get a penalty, then we throw a pick; they come down and they score, they seized momentum and you felt like, man, I don’t know, can we overcome that?”

The team talked at halftime about finding a way to overcome but Sonora made it hard, as they had the upper hand in time of possession, keeping their offense on the field for much of the third quarter.

“They just wear on you, that’s what Sonora does,” Beam said. “But the kids just battled, I’m so proud of those  kids … it has been a challenge but those kids stayed the course.”

Escalon got the ball back after holding Sonora out of the end zone to start the third, but the Wildcats took several minutes off the clock. A 55-yard pass play from Rozevink to Owen Nash went for the touchdown, kick good, to make it 21-21 with 5:53 to go in the third.

Nash, who had six catches for 163 and two touchdowns on the night, got into the record books as Escalon’s all-time leading receiver in terms of catches, yards and touchdown receptions.

But there wasn’t any celebrating during the game, as Sonora answered the Escalon drive and took a 28-21 lead late in the third on another rushing play.

A key Escalon drive in the fourth quarter, with a fourth and one at the 2-yard line, ended when they were ruled short on a carry by Peters that looked as though his forward progress got the first down. But Sonora took over just outside the 1-yard line; rushed to the 14, then were driven back on a false start penalty. A couple of plays later, they had a third down and 7 at the 19-yard line and the pass was picked off by Logan Anderson at about the 30-yard line; his teammates provided the blocks in front of him and he returned it for a pick-six. The extra point was good and it was 28-28 with 3:39 to go in the game.

“We needed a play and this is probably one of the best feelings I’ve ever had; I’m in tears right now,” an emotional but exhilarated Anderson said following the contest. “I’ve been here two other times and nothing has felt like this; this is amazing and that pick six felt great, we needed a big play. Not only did I make one but my teammates made them all around after that, defensively we stepped up that second half like we needed too … we toughed it out until the end.”

Showing their strength and stamina, Sonora had a short rush, an incomplete pass and then, on a third and 7 at the 14-yard line, broke free for an 86-yard touchdown run with 2:38 to play to regain the lead after Anderson’s pick six. The snap on the extra point was bad and the Cougars pounced on the loose ball, Sonora taking a 34-28 lead.

The kickoff went into the end zone so the Cougars were at the 20-yard line to start the drive, needing to go 80 yards. An incomplete pass, a false start put the Cougars back at the 15-yard line. Rozevink found Nash for a catch that got them to the 42-yard line but another Escalon penalty pushed them back again. The next series saw a catch by Anderson, then a rush by Rozevink and a crucial first down conversion by Peters on a third and three. Rozevink then completed a pass to Reider, who got out of bounds to stop the clock. That gave the Cougars a chance to breathe and they faced a second down and 3 at the 18-yard line with 37 seconds left.

Rozevink took the snap and dropped back, looking for his favorite target. Nash was in the back corner of the end zone and timed his leap, getting above the Wildcat defender to pull in the pass and then got both feet in bounds. That tied the game at 34-34; Reider split the uprights with the point after attempt for a 35-34 lead with precious few seconds remaining.

“Something clicked in me and like, I thought, it’s not over until I win,” Nash said. “It was crazy, I jumped up and that might have been the highest I ever jumped. I caught it and I was able to look down and make sure I was in bounds.”

Sonora battled to make headway up the field but fell short, the final play seeing the pass batted away and the Cougar sidelines and stands erupting.

“In Escalon history we’ve never had a three-peat, ever and that’s really what made this team really want that,” Rozevink said. “Out of all the great teams, some of the greatest teams to ever come through Escalon, they still never got a three-peat and that’s what drove us. I mean, we hadn’t won in Ripon in 11 years, we went and did that and this was our next thing, we had to beat the curse and that’s just what we came out and did.”

Rozevink pointed to the two biggest plays being Anderson’s pick six and Nash’s leaping TD catch.

He also praised his offensive line, who he said stepped up and held their own against the massive d-line of the Wildcats.

“It was great, I ran down there and I almost started to tear up and cry when I hugged him,” the quarterback said of his connection with receiver Nash on the game-winning score. “We’ve been playing together since we were little kids, and we have been best friends … as long as I can remember, we’ve been playing football with each other and that was probably one of the greatest feelings ever.”

On the defensive side of the ball, Nate Krieger led the team in tackles with 11, Peters had six. Offensively, Rozevink was 9-for-16 passing for 248 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. Peters had 15 carries for 140 yards and a touchdown; Anderson had the pick six for the score; Miller had a touchdown reception and Nash added his two TD catches.

This was Escalon’s 17th Section finals appearance since 1990 and this is the 11th Section title the teams have brought home.

“Tradition. You know, the saying that we all have,” Beam said of a key factor in pushing the team to work harder and go the extra mile in pursuit of the title. “Tradition never graduates.”