Heading into the game, the Escalon varsity Cougars knew; a win and they would claim their first outright Trans-Valley League title in 10 years.
When it came down to the end, head coach Andrew Beam let them know. They needed a yard for a championship.
Late in the game, leading Livingston by just one score, 33-26, it was a fourth and one for the Cougars near midfield. Fail to convert and they give the ball back to the tough Wolves, who had shown themselves to be capable of scoring and would have loved the chance to get the game tied.
“I told them, you need one yard,” Bream explained. “One yard. They got five.”
The ball went to the hard charging Ryker Peters, who put his head down, kept his legs churning and followed his offensive line over the line of scrimmage and past the yard needed to seal the victory.
From there, it was just a snap, a kneel down and the celebration could begin.
“I’m so happy for all these kids and especially those seniors,” Beam said of getting not just the win on Friday in the regular season finale but also the undisputed league title. “This wasn’t the team that was highly talked about like the team of a couple of years ago … this year’s seniors went 1-9 as freshmen, 6-4 as sophomores.”
And they had very little varsity experience, as the shortened COVID-19 season this past spring saw the Cougars play just three games, losing two of the five scheduled to COVID protocols.
“There were just a lot of emotions; these kids did a tremendous job sticking with the program and believing in this program,” Beam added.
Escalon went 6-0 in the tough Trans-Valley League and are 9-1 overall, their only loss to Kimball.
“Every week, you heard coaches from around the league saying ‘I don’t think anybody can run this gauntlet’ and I was among them,” Beam explained. “So to be able to go and do what nobody expected them to do, I couldn’t be happier or more proud of these guys.”
Livingston, however, came in with a game plan. They won the toss, opted to receive, and ate up a good portion of the first quarter on a 16-play, seven-and-a-a-half minute drive to score.
“They took the lead, took the juice out of the stadium, the energy out of our sideline,” Beam said.
Escalon was driving at the end of the first quarter and scored to tie the game at 7-7 on a 50-yard touchdown run from Logan Anderson and the kick from Alfonzo Gonzalez.
An 11-yard run by Livingston put them back on top, though they missed the extra point, but they took as 13-7 lead. They looked poised to add to that lead with a little over a minute to play in the half when the tide started to turn.
Tyler Medina stepped in front of a Livingston pass, grabbing the interception, giving the ball back to Escalon with about a minute and a half to go.
“We go five plays and score to tie the game, get a 10-yard touchdown catch by Logan Anderson and that really flipped the energy, flipped the confidence of both teams,” Beam said.
The extra point was no good, sending the teams into the locker room tied at 13-13.
Escalon got the ball to start the second half and with 8:45 to go in the third, EJ Lewis pulled in a short touchdown pass from Donovan Rozevink. The point after was good, giving Escalon its first lead of the night, 20-13. With 1:43 to go in the third, Owen Nash was on the receiving end of a 6-yard touchdown pass from Rozevink, the kick was good and the Cougars were rolling at 27-13.
Livingston answered back early in the fourth on a 19-yard touchdown pass, kick good, to trim the lead to 27-20. A punishing 10-yard run by Ryker Peters put the Cougars back on top but the kick sailed wide right, making it 33-20. With about four minutes to play, Livingston found the end zone again, kick no good, getting to within 33-26.
After a fumble by Escalon on the ensuing kickoff was recovered by Livingston, the Cougar defense stepped up to the challenge and got the takeover on downs with 2:26 to play. Working their way up the field and working the clock, the Cougars were faced with a fourth and one at the 44-yard line. That’s when a yard would win the championship and the give was to Peters, who got the yard and then some.
“At some point we had to go win the game,” Beam said. “Donovan had one of his better games in the last few weeks, he was 10-for-14 with 151 yards and three touchdowns and no turnovers.”
Big plays during the night also came from Jamin Miller with a huge first down reception on a 45-yard pass, Matthew Baptista with some solid runs and outstanding defense, Owen Nash with some crucial catches.
Medina had the tide-turning interception, Baptista had six tackles at cornerback and Peters added eight tackles from his linebacker position. Sebastian Snow and Nathan Chavez each had a sack.
Peters was the leading rusher, 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown.
“He was an impact player on both sides of the ball,” said Beam.
Anderson had eight carries for 80 yards and a touchdown, along with three catches for 17 yards and a score.
EJ Lewis had two catches for 47 yards, Nash had four catches for 41 yards, each with a touchdown reception.
“Each team had nine penalties and we had nine rushing first downs, which I think is indicative of some of the success we are having now running the ball,” Beam said.
Escalon gets a first round bye as the No. 1 seed in the Division V playoffs; they will host the winner of the Nov. 5 first round game between No. 8 Woodland and No. 9 Colfax. The Nov. 12 quarterfinal game will be at Engel Field with a 7 p.m. kickoff.