It wasn’t the way you would draw it up – and certainly not the way the Cougars wanted it to play out – but the varsity football team ended its season on the road with a 28-18 loss Friday night.
Traveling to take on the Trans-Valley League rival Hilmar Yellowjackets, the Cougars found themselves on the wrong side of the final score in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI semifinals. Hilmar now moves on to the Section title game, facing off against Ripon Christian, which defeated Modesto Christian in the other semifinal game on Nov. 23.
First-year varsity head coach Andrew Beam said it’s hard to believe the season is over, as he wasn’t ready to stop and neither were his players. But a week of practicing in the gym because of bad air quality and a week’s postponement of the semifinal round seemed to have played havoc with the Cougars.
“Not to make any excuses but we were not the same offensive team we had been for the last seven weeks,” Beam admitted.
All the semifinal games were postponed a week due to bad air quality stemming from California fires and all teams had to shake off the rust. Hilmar just did it a little better than the Cougars.
“The two empty red zone possessions in the first half definitely came back to haunt us,” Beam added.
Escalon did get on the board first on Friday night, but later opportunities to score in the first half fell short, leaving the Cougars with just a 7-0 advantage at the half.
It was also the defense that got the ball rolling, as a high snap on a Hilmar punt saw Jacob Walden take down the punter, putting Escalon into good field position. Luke Anderson was able to run it in from a yard out a couple of plays later and Guillermo Alvarez added the point after for a 7-0 Escalon lead.
Hilmar won the toss and deferred to start the game, kicking off to the Cougars but Escalon had to punt that possession away. Hilmar had the bad snap at the end of their first possession and that led to the Cougar score with 6:23 to play in the first quarter.
After holding Hilmar to another punt, Escalon got into position for a 19-yard field goal attempt but Alvarez lost his footing and the kick fell short, with just a minute left in the opening frame.
Second quarter action saw the teams trading possessions, a couple of penalties, a big sack by Walden and Damien Tom converging on the Hilmar quarterback, another high snap on a Hilmar punt and a pair of missed field goals.
Escalon’s kick was wide left on a 44-yard attempt and Hilmar had a 42-yard attempt fall short. The first half ended with visiting Escalon hanging on to the 7-0 lead.
“Not making it a two-score game, that was huge,” Beam explained of missing two chances to lengthen the lead. “If we come away with any points there, I really feel it’s a different game.”
But the 7-0 lead was tenuous at best and had the Cougars on edge.
“I told the kids at halftime, Hilmar was going to stop making mistakes,” the coach noted.
Hilmar got the kickoff to start the second half and used a play that Escalon was anticipating – a reverse to senior standout tailback Isaac Sharp, who swept to the sideline, refused to go down and ran nearly the length of the field for an 87-yard touchdown. The point after was good to knot the score at 7-7.
“For them to go on a reverse, more than 80 yards for a touchdown on a play that we knew was coming, that was really disheartening,” Beam said. “That was really the only time he (Sharp) hurt us.”
Escalon went three and out on their next possession and the coach said you could sense the momentum shifting. On Hilmar’s next possession, it was a pass that was tipped by Escalon but not intercepted, falling instead into the arms of the Yellowjackets receiver, that went for a 44-yard score. With the kick, Hilmar took their first lead of the game, 14-7, with 10:05 to play in the third quarter.
“We were a little shell shocked at that point,” Beam said.
Escalon was able to close to within 14-10 on a 35-yard field goal by Alvarez with 3:51 to play in the third.
Midway through the fourth, a Hilmar player was ejected after a helmet to helmet hit. Escalon tried a trick play after the dust cleared, but the pass intended for quarterback Ty Harris instead was picked off in the red zone and Hilmar parlayed that into a score a few plays later, adding the kick for a 21-10 lead with 4:58 to play in the game.
“I was proud of our guys, they came right back on a quick scoring drive, Ty Harris on a pass to Colton Panero and then the 2-point conversion to Kaden Christensen that made it 21-18 and got us within a field goal,” explained Beam.
It was a three-point game with 3:35 to go but Hilmar was able to punch one in late, senior running back Justin Rentfro escaping from the middle of a scrum to go 32 yards for the score. The kick made it 28-18 Hilmar with 1:56 to go.
A strip sack and ensuing fumble recovery by Hilmar on Escalon’s next possession effectively ended the game, the Yellowjackets able to run out the clock.
“Our defense was unbelievable,” Beam noted. “We got 13 different stops on defense where they’re (Hilmar) punting.”
The offense, however, just couldn’t get much going with the run game and that forced the Cougars into trying some other options that just didn’t work out as well as hoped.
Escalon did have 197 yards passing and just 52 yards rushing while Hilmar ended the game with 142 yards passing and 190 rushing. Harris was 13-for-32 for Escalon with one touchdown pass.
“For as much pressure as he was under in this situation, he handled himself very well,” Beam said of the sophomore quarterback getting just his second varsity start.
Hilmar completed 9-of-17 pass attempts. Escalon had nine penalties, Hilmar was flagged for 11.
Defensively, Cougar standouts were Nash Satnat, harassing the offense all night long and recording six tackles, while Colton Panero had 11 tackles and David Camacho added seven. Walden and Tom each had a sack.
Anderson had 15 carries for 37 yards and a touchdown, Panero had a touchdown reception.
Escalon ended its season with a record of 9-3 overall, ending one game short of a shot at the Section crown. For many, the loss was a crushing way to end the season.
“The kids being upset speaks to tradition and expectation,” Beam said. “Nine wins anywhere else is a great season … our guys expect more.”
For his part, Beam said taking over the varsity program, bringing some coaches up from the JV level as well, he was extremely pleased with the efforts and accomplishments of the 2018 Cougars.
“We had some great leadership from our seniors, just some great character guys,” Beam said.
Couple that with solid seasons from plenty of juniors and the team was on an upswing throughout the campaign.
Several juniors and a handful of sophomores already getting plenty of action on the football field also bodes well for next year.
“We will return 10 players on offense, eight on defense so that’s a bright spot for next year but our seniors will be missed,” Beam said.