Coming out a little too excited almost did the Cougars in.
On the road at Hughson for the Trans-Valley League opener on Friday, Sept. 17, the visiting Escalon squad found themselves in a 13-0 hole at halftime.
This, after being thoroughly thrashed by the Kimball Jaguars, losing their Homecoming game by a 54-14 decision on Sept. 10.
“We knew Hughson was going to bring everything they had,” head coach Andrew Beam said of the host Huskies, one of this year’s TVL favorites. “We came out so amped up … everything that could go wrong did. We had them on a third and long early to force a punt and got a roughing the punter penalty, then we had them on a third and 16, got a roughing the passer penalty and then they went and scored.”
Escalon also had a nice gain of 42 yards called back on their first possession because they only had nine men on the field.
“I think you saw our immaturity and our lack of experience,” Beam said of the early miscues. “Our seniors this year have never had a high stakes competition.”
Last season – an abbreviated schedule – saw the Cougars playing a handful of games with no league title at stake, no pressure of postseason play.
Beam said it’s easy to forget that, and easy for the coaches to demand a lot of the team.
“We expect them to be right there,” he explained, adding that this year’s juniors also have had precious little high school football experience in games against traditional league foes.
Hughson, riding in on a wave of victories, looked very much like the TVL team to beat in the first half, starting with a nine-minute drive and converting an 11-yard run with the kick good to go up 7-0 on the Cougars in the first quarter. They would add a second touchdown in the second quarter but fail to get the extra point, taking a 13-0 lead.
The Huskies were hitting on all cylinders early, while the Escalon squad was still trying to get the nerves under control and settle in to a game plan.
“At halftime, we challenged them,” Beam said, urging the young players to step it up, to prove they knew what it means to be a Cougar.
“In the first quarter, we had one running play and just three total plays in that whole first quarter,” Beam said of the trouble early on.
In the second quarter, the Cougars had a fourth and short in their own territory.
“We went for it and, in retrospect, we should have punted,” Beam said of making a bad decision. “They stopped us, that gave them a short field and they scored their touchdown in the second quarter on an 18-yard pass play.”
But even with all the troubles in the first half, it was just a two-score game, still within reach as the Cougars came out for the second half.
“We told them, we get the ball to start the second half, go play Escalon football,” Beam said.
The players took the message to heart, going on a roughly six-minute drive and quarterback Donovan Rozevink connecting with EJ Lewis on a 20-yard touchdown pass. The kick was good and Escalon cut into the deficit, 13-7.
The defense then held Hughson to a three and out and on the punt return, got extra yards for a late hit against the Huskies. The momentum started to turn and, after another Escalon drive, JP Lial punched it in from a yard out. The kick was good and by the end of the third quarter, it was a 14-13 Cougar lead.
“You could see it, that momentum switched, our guys believed and Hughson started to tighten up,” Beam said. “We held them to minus five yards rushing in the fourth quarter and seven total rushing yards in the second half.”
With the slim lead, there was more work to be done in the fourth quarter.
The key stop on a late Hughson drive came from Ryker Peters, the definitive hit putting an exclamation point on the comeback and earning the junior the Ball-Out Belt honors.
“They had a fourth and four and Ryker had a huge stop, an absolute collision with their quarterback and stopped him two yards short,” said Beam.
That turned the ball over on downs to the Cougars and Lial again got into the end zone, going in from a yard out after setting himself up with an 18-yard scramble on the previous play. This time, the kick was up, hit the cross bar and bounced through to give Escalon a 21-13 lead and all but silencing the Hughson crowd.
After another short possession by Hughson, the Cougars were able to kneel it out.
“We were able to leave Hughson with a victory,” the coach said. “This could be the turning point, could propel us forward.”
It might be just a 1-0 start in TVL play but the win was definitely significant, said Beam.
“Maybe there’s a new perspective on what this team is capable of,” he said.
Defensively, Caden Gonsalves had 11 tackles, EJ Lewis added eight. Logan Anderson had a sack and six tackles, while freshman Ryan Lewis had two sacks.
“Tyler Medina had a good game for us at safety,” Beam said. “Offensively, everybody contributed to get those 21 points; they were finding their groove in the second half.”
Owen Nash had six catches for 36 yards; EJ Lewis had two catches for 32 yards and a touchdown.
Rozevink connected on 9-of-13 passes for 68 yards.
JP Lial paced the ground game, 12 carries for 56 yards and two touchdowns.
Hughson had 161 yards of offense, Escalon had 203.
Penalties saw Hughson commit seven for 55 yards, Escalon had nine for 70.
“Now we go into our bye week, we get to regroup, get healthy,” Beam said. “We welcome Hilmar to Engel Field next, they are coming off a 28-24 win over Livingston.”
Hilmar will be in town on Oct. 1.
“The TVL is just really close this year, there are many teams competing for the championship,” Beam said.