A packed house, raucous visiting crowd and highly touted opponent gave Escalon High's varsity boys basketball team a glimpse of the future during Friday's Cougar Homecoming.
Escalon fell 69-56 to section title favorite, Riverbank, but led 34-32 at the half and showed tremendous fight in a contest that featured the atmosphere and cast of a postseason thriller.
"Riverbank is favored to win the section and obviously is going to be a real high seed in the playoffs," Escalon coach Martin Louro said afterwards. "But I think we went toe-to-toe with them.
"They are a very talented team, but I think we can beat them."
If Escalon can repeat a collection of three wins (teams they beat by a combined 186-125 score) from the first half of league play, the Cougars will likely enter the Division IV Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.
On Tuesday, Escalon got a shot at a Ripon team they lost to by five points in the first round, but results were not available at press time. Louro said heading in to that game it was key, and a win there could give the Cougars a solid shot at a home playoff contest.
The Cougars (12-10 overall, 3-4 TVL) host Orestimba (5-17, 0-7) on Thursday, Jan. 31 to begin a stretch of three games they must win. Louro indicated his team needs to exhibit some of the same fight that they showed against Riverbank to ensure extra contests in 2013.
"Tonight we played real physical, which is something we hadn't been doing," Louro said. "Every game from here on out has to be like this one. We need to be physical and we need to continue to pressure.
"If we can play 32 minutes of that type of pressure, I think most teams are going to find that real difficult to handle."
Escalon led by a point after one period and fought to stay ahead during a 24-23 advantage in the second quarter. Things went awry offensively during a 17-8 Riverbank rally in the third and the Bruins converted late possessions to maintain the lead in a 20-14 fourth quarter finish.
The Cougars struggled to contain Riverbank guard Rolaun Dunham, who broke away from a scoreless first quarter to land a game-high 25 points in the remaining periods. Dunham scrambled to put up big scores that effectively silenced a rowdy Escalon crowd late in the game.
"We knew coming in that their fans would go wild and everything, but we had to just play it cool," Dunham said.
Escalon's leading scorer, Alec VonAlvensleben, was held to just one field goal (a three-pointer), but converted all five free throw attempts. Brian Gregorio led the Cougars with 14 points, including nine in a brilliant second quarter that helped Escalon keep the lead at halftime. It was Gregorio's first game back since a concussion forced the senior to miss five straight conference contests.
"It's hard to take a loss, but I am glad I got to play well in my last Homecoming game," Gregorio said. "I haven't played in two weeks, so I am trying to get back."
Marvin Guillen chipped in 12 points for Escalon while Owen Pangilinan (seven), Ryan Bartelink (six), Phillip Kimble (five) and Matt Silveira (four) also worked in scores. It was also a memorable night for Kimble, named as the Winter Homecoming King during halftime festivities of the varsity contest.