Big performances by clutch performers made the difference for Escalon on Friday night.
The varsity football Cougars punched their ticket to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 6 championship game by taking down the Sonora Wildcats, 40-14, in a Nov. 22 game at Engel Field. They move on to face Trans-Valley League rival Hilmar in the D6 championship game, with a 1 p.m. kickoff Saturday, Nov. 30 at Lincoln High School in Stockton.
“We knew that Sonora was better than their record, all five of the teams they lost to are still playing,” head coach Andrew Beam pointed out. “This offense is tough to stop so we knew we were going to be in for a dogfight.”
While the Cougar offense hummed along effectively, it was a pair of defensive touchdowns that turned the tide in Escalon’s favor.
Jacob Walden picked up a fumble and returned it for a touchdown in the third quarter while Garrett Nash stripped the ball away from a Sonora opponent on a tackle and ran it back for another score to cap a 26-point outburst in that frame. Both were crucial to the win, igniting the Escalon sidelines and the crowd, while taking the air out of any hopes Sonora had for an upset win on the road.
Sonora won the toss and deferred, giving Escalon the ball to start the game. With nothing much going on with their first possession, the Cougars had to punt the ball away but Sonora returned the favor, also punting on their first possession.
On their second possession, Escalon got some big runs from Kaden Christensen and Luke Anderson, setting up the 4-yard run to the end zone for Colton Panero. Adding the point after was Brayan Barrientos and it was 7-0 Escalon with 3:27 to go in the first quarter.
Sonora drew even with a touchdown and point after with 9:31 to play in the second, tying the game at 7-7.
Escalon missed a chance to take the lead on their next possession after a bad snap on a field goal attempt negated the kick. But the defense rose to the challenge on Sonora’s next possession, with Damien Tom and Jacob Walden ending the drive with a sack of the quarterback. That gave the Cougars the ball back with just over two minutes to play in the first half. A series that saw another huge chunk of yardage eaten up by Christensen, and a huge completion from Ty Harris to Kaidence Trejo set up another score by Panero. The kick was good for a 14-7 lead and the Cougars left the field with the advantage at the half.
“We got that big score right before the half and that gave us a little momentum,” said Beam. “We got into the locker room and someone said ‘isn’t this fun?’ and I thought, this is what playoff football is all about. Our student section, our band, our cheerleaders, our crowd, they were all tremendous, it was just a very special environment.”
The Wildcats got the ball to start the second half and again drew even, converting in the third quarter on a 33-yard touchdown run after getting new life on a roughing the passer penalty on Escalon. The kick was good and with 7:44 to go in the third, the game was tied 14-14.
But that was the last score of the night for the visitors.
Christensen did his best to take them down – even after having a huge touchdown run called back on a penalty. After being denied that time, the senior made his presence known again, pulling in a 69-yard catch and run for the touchdown. The point after was no good but Escalon had a 20-14 lead with 5:58 to go in the third.
Luke Anderson would add a 4-yard rushing touchdown with 1:58 to play in the quarter, somehow squeezing through the Wildcats to find the end zone. The 2-point conversion attempt failed but it was a 26-14 lead for the home team.
On Sonora’s next possession, the runner fumbled the ball and that’s when Walden scooped it up and ran it back 33 yards for the defensive score. Teammate Panero blocked the Sonora player from getting to the loose ball, allowing Walden to scoop and score. The kick was good, it was 33-14 Cougaas with 1:02 to go in the third.
Walden said scoring a touchdown had been one of his goals for this season and having the opportunity to do it on the home field was “an amazing feeling” since his parents, classmates and teammates were all there to cheer him on.
Not to be outdone, Nash stripped the ball from the Sonora player on the ensuing possession and he rambled 57 yards for the touchdown. The kick was good and, as the third quarter ended, the Cougars had a 40-14 edge.
“That was awesome,” admitted Nash, who scored the first touchdown of his high school career with the strip tackle. “I saw him running and caught up to him, saw the ball looked way loose and just knocked it out.”
Christensen said with just the 14-7 lead at the half, the Cougars got some inspiration from their head coach at halftime.
“Beam said go get it done,” Christensen said. “We came out and played Escalon football.”
The smashmouth style served the home team well, as the offense and defense both started to click as the game wore on. Christensen added it was special for the three year players on the squad to finally get the chance to play for a section title, something that has eluded them so far.
Harris was 6-for-12 on the night for 168 yards and a touchdown. Christensen had seven carries for 75 yards and three catches for 86 yards with a touchdown. Panero had 10 carries for 52 yards and a pair of scores.
Defensively, Walden had nine tackles, a fumble recovery and half a sack; David Camacho had nine tackles, Tom had six tackles and one-and-a-half sacks, Roman Gonzalez added a fumble recovery, Panero had seven tackles.
Senior Clay Evans also had a memorable night, hauling in a pass from back-up quarterback Wyatt McCune for a big first down play late in the game.
“It was an incredible feeling,” he said of laying out to gather in the pass near the sidelines. “Wyatt put the ball on my shoulder, I just went and got it.”
He’s also looking forward to the challenge that lies ahead, facing off against Hilmar for the section title on Saturday, Nov. 30.
“It’s going to be just as hard, just as big a battle,” Evans said. “It’s go time from here on out.”