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Varsity Boys Ready To Move To Next Level
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Working like the proverbial well-oiled machine, Escalon's varsity boys steamrolled Hilmar, 77-51, in Friday night's regular season finale. That sends the squad into the playoffs on a high note, finishing second in the Trans-Valley League with an 11-3 record.

The Cougars, the number three seed in Division IV behind Ripon and Encina of Sacramento, will host number 14 Linden on Wednesday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. in the first round of the playoffs.

There wasn't much doubt which team was in charge on Friday, as the Cougars opened up strong and took a 21-10 lead in the first quarter, leaving the Yellowjackets in their wake.

"They're a special group," coach Mike Backovich said of his Cougars. "They have a resiliency to them that makes them win and we have a lot of players that are really stepping up."

Escalon also defeated Ripon Christian on Tuesday, Feb. 15 to end the season on a winning note and securing the second place honors all by themselves.

The week was capped off with the win at home against Hilmar, celebrated as Senior Night with recognition for senior cheerleaders, players and parents.

Able to focus on the task at hand after the festivities, the boys took the early lead and were firmly in command at the halfway point, senior Marc Backovich hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer for a 43-24 Escalon lead at the half.

He had the touch from 3-point range on the night, hitting for seven of them on the way to a 25-point effort.

Part of the reason Backovich was able to get the shots from the outside, said the coach, was that Hilmar started keying in on Steve Gentry underneath, forcing the Cougars to kick it out more. But the Hilmar defensive strategy backfired, as Backovich burned them for the three's.

"Steve Gentry is a 70 percent off, no tax, after Christmas sale at Macy's, he draws that much of a crowd," Backovich explained.

With Gentry being covered in the paint more often than not, it was up to some outside shooting expertise to make up the difference.

"If you can open it up, one of our guys can go off from the outside," Backovich said, noting that the Cougars have multiple players that can hit from outside.

Gentry still battled for a dozen points and was one of four Cougars in double figures, with Marcus Savage adding 13 and Grant Goedhart with 11.

"Grant had a great night shooting, a great night passing," said Backovich. "And Marcus had eight points for us in the first quarter, I'd never seen Marcus that gassed in the first quarter."

Savage and Marc Backovich also did some solid defensive work, holding one of Hilmar's top scorers, Chris Correia, without a point and keeping Adam Grubb - averaging 20-plus points per game - to just seven on the night.

Outscoring Hilmar 20-9 in the third quarter, the Cougars coasted to the 77-51 win.

About the only thing missing was a slam dunk, otherwise the Cougars gave the raucous crowd all they wanted, with fast breaks, blocked shots, no-look passes and plenty of assists. The crowd responded with cheers and chants.

"Our fans have been great," Backovich said of the support shown throughout the season.

The Cougars defeated Ripon Christian on the home court Tuesday, topping the Knights by a 50-40 verdict.

"Initially, they got on top and we were missing Brian Beeman, he was out sick for the week," Backovich said of going into the contest at less than full strength. "Then Marc got in foul trouble early."

It didn't matter. The rest of the Cougars just picked up their game a notch and moved on, all players contributing in the absence of a couple of key parts.

"Grant, Marcus, Andrew Beam, Joe Dalpogetti, Anthony Suniga, we got quality time from all of them and that was huge for us," Backovich noted. "We were playing unbelievable defense and it was just great. What we really needed to do was beat the man in front of us and this time we aggressively attacked the post, we kept the ball out of the paint."

The coach said Gentry turned in his best defensive game of the year against RC, holding top player Justin Adema to only nine points.

Gentry and Backovich combined for just 11 points on the night, Savage and Beam had 13 points each to help carry the Cougars.

"They had no answer for him that night," Backovich said of Beam. "That was the rubber match of the three we played with Ripon Christian."

Final tally, Escalon two, RC one for the season.

"Our defense carries us," Backovich added, noting that the team also knows how to make it work offensively. "It's a huge, unselfish group. You feed the hot hand, it's just great to watch. Some nights one guy's hot, some nights it's another."

With the wins in league play this week, the Cougars improved to 19-7 overall and are happy to be hosting a playoff game. Three of the top four seeds in Division IV are from the TVL, with Ripon first, Escalon third and Patterson fourth. Riverbank, as the ninth seed, will be on the road and play at number eight Central Catholic on Wednesday.

"Our big thing is we want to get to the next level," Backovich said. "We want to go to Arco, it's a 16-team tournament now."