STOCKTON – The Escalon High Cougars leaned on all of it Saturday night – winning culture, competitive spirit, and just old-fashioned refuse-to-lose mettle to snare their 11th Sac-Joaquin Section title.
How else to explain Escalon rallying from deficits four times, then beating Sonora on Owen Nash’s jump-ball catch of Donovan Rozevink’s looping 18-yard touchdown pass with 28 seconds left? What else is there to say when Talan Reider overcomes regular-season misses to hit the championship-clinching extra point?
That’s what Escalon had to do to deny the Wildcats 35-34 – the Cougars’ third straight blue banner -- in a stirring Division V championship game at St. Mary’s High.
“Tradition never graduates,” Escalon coach Andrew Beam summarized. “It was a challenge all season. These kids stayed the course.”
Escalon (10-4) will learn its Northern California opponent on Sunday afternoon. Until then, the Cougars will celebrate their own chapter of the school’s remarkable football history.
Sonora (10-3), seeded No. 2, broke a 28-28 deadlock with 2:38 left when Bryce Nicolson – the Wildcats’ fastest player – slashed and sprinted 86 yards to the end zone. But the extra-point snap sailed high, and the only unconverted PAT by either team proved pivotal.
Escalon walked through that tiny opening to win a championship. The Cougars marched 80 yards and overcame two penalties, thanks in part to the arm of Rozevink (246 passing yards, three touchdowns) and bruising runs by Ryker Peters (16 carries, 150 yards, TD) and Logan Anderson.
But two stunning catches by senior receiver Owen Nash will be remembered above the rest. The first was a 42-yard completion that, for a few moments, appeared to be a Sonora interception. Nash and corner Noah Baker struggled for possession as they hit the ground in front of the Cougars’ bench. It was ruled a dual-catch, which goes to the offense.
Sonora begged to differ.
“We’re pretty he (Baker) picked it,” Sonora coach Bryan Craig said. “He told us that he had it.”
Baker, who gave up height and weight to Nash in a scrappy night-long tussle, again presented tight coverage six plays later. Rozevink tossed to the back of the end zone, where Nash went up like a power forward for the touchdown catch.
“It was a broken play. He (Rozevink) threw it up and, luckily, No. 7 (Rosevink) trusted me,” Nash said.
Beam offered his own take: “A heck of a rebound.”
Reider connected for the fifth time to give Escalon its first lead since the opening quarter. Sonora reached its own 48 yard line before a deep pass fell incomplete.
“It was hard to look in the seniors’ eyes and see the finality. The finality just hit them,” Craig said. “You give us another 30 seconds, we win this thing.”
Nash, a rangy and athletic 6-foot-4, grew an inch and put on about 25 pounds over the off-season. Good genes also helped. His mother is Escalon grad Carrie Nash, who won the 800 and 1,500 meters in both 1993 and ’94 for Stanislaus State at the NCAA Division II Championships.
“Better athlete than I’ll ever be,” Owen Nash said, no doubt scoring points at home. At least the son has a kitchen-table argument after he caught six passes for 163 yards and two TDs in the title game.
Rozevink’s scoring passes covered 64 yards to Jamin Miller for Escalon’s early lead, a 55-yarder over the middle to Nash for a 21-21 tie and the game-winner.
The loss was heartbreaking for Sonora. Tailback Audie Peeples pounded for 101 yards and three touchdowns as the Wildcats led most of the night. They took a 28-21 when, after a timeout on 4th-and-goal from the 2, Peeples followed Utah commit Roger Alderman over the goal line.
Sonora stood only a first down or two away from a win at the four-minute mark before the game swung off its axis. On 3rd-and-5 from the Sonora 19, quarterback Adam Curnow threw downfield and Anderson intercepted at the Wildcats’ 35.
Anderson, a member of the 2019 and ’20 championship teams before this year, veered to his right where a convoy of teammates escorted him to the pylon for the game-knotting pick-6.
“The ball kind of came to me,” Anderson said. “I saw a swarm of Sonora guys so I took off to the right and saw Jamin (teammate Jamin Miller) and the other guys to lead me there.”
Nicolson’s sprint started more shockwaves, and Nash’s catch drew a roar from the packed visitors’ stands. The contest exceeded its lofty expectations, but only one team was allowed to pose for the championship photo.
“I love high school football for these reasons,” Beam said. “Sonora fought and fought. It’s fun playing games like that.”