STOCKTON — It’s Trans-Valley League football. It’s Escalon. It’s Hilmar. You knew what to expect, and you got it: a thrilling, rock ‘em, sock ‘em football game for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V championship.
When the dust had settled Saturday night, Escalon walked away — more like limped away, with ice bags strapped to knees and shoulders — with a hard-fought 20-13 victory over its rival at Sanguinetti Field on the campus of St. Mary’s High School.
“This game lived up to the hype, there’s no doubt about it,” said Escalon head coach Andrew Beam, whose team defeated Hilmar 28-14 in their regular-season meeting. “We just made one more stop than they did tonight.”
With just under seven minutes left in the game and Escalon nursing a 14-13 lead, senior fullback J.P. Lial slipped in from the 3-yard-line — the PAT was wide right after a false start moved the ball back 5 yards — to extend the Cougars’ one-point lead to seven.
Hilmar drove all the way to Escalon’s 29 on its ensuing possession, but turned the ball over on downs with 3:19 left to play.
The Yellowjackets still had all three of their timeouts remaining and managed the clocked perfectly. They forced Escalon to go three-and-out, getting the ball back with 1:39 remaining. But quarterback Donovan Rozevink’s 46-yard pooch kick rolled all the way to the 13, putting Hilmar in a colossal hole.
After three incompletions and a 1-yard gain when quarterback Jason Pimentel was flushed from the pocket, the Yellowjackets again turned the ball over on downs and Escalon ran out the clock.
“We knew they were a really sound team that doesn’t make mistakes,” said Hilmar head coach Frank Marques, whose Yellowjackets were playing in their fourth consecutive section title game. “We knew we had our hands full, but our kids battled tonight. I’m just heartbroken for these seniors.”
Saturday marked the second straight time that Escalon defeated Hilmar for a section banner and the fourth consecutive year that one of the teams has ended the other’s season. The teams met in 2019, the last time playoffs were contested, for the Division VI championship. Hilmar eliminated Escalon in the semifinal round the previous two seasons en route to championships.
Saturday also marked the 16th championship-game appearance for each team, tied for fourth most in section history behind Central Catholic (23), Del Oro (18) and Oakdale (17).
Hilmar’s first drive of the game came to a disappointing end when Tyler Medina intercepted quarterback Jason Pimentel in the end zone. It was one of two interceptions for Medina in the contest.
Escalon capitalized and took a 7-0 lead when fullback Ryker Peters busted up the gut for a 66-yard jaunt with 7:17 remaining in the first quarter. Peters rushes for 121 yards on 13 carries in the first half, but was limited to 29 yards on 10 totes in the second half.
“They dared us to throw the ball,” said Beam. “Their ‘backers are scrappy and tough and they made life hard for us. Credit to them.”
Rozevink completed 7 of 10 passes for 155 yards, which included a 55-yard TD pass to Owen Nash that made it 14-0 midway thought the second quarter.
Nash caught four Rozevink passes for 101 yards, while E.J. Lewis hauled in the other three for 50 yards.
Hilmar got on the board late in the first half when Broc Perry scored from 7 yards out, then made it 14-13 midway through the third on Pimentel’s 11-yard pass to Derek Taylor.
Suddenly, the Hilmar fans were back into the game while the Escalon bleachers grew nervously quiet.
That changed seconds later when Logan Anderson exploded 95 yards for a kickoff return, igniting the Escalon crowd and dousing the Hilmar spark.
Momentum flipped again when a flag came flying to the ground, nullifying the TD because of an illegal block in the back.
Escalon reclaimed the momentum when Rozevink hit Lewis for a 31-yard gain, but Hilmar knocked the ball loose and recovered its 15. The Yellowjackets marched to midfield and the Hilmar crowd grew increasingly more frenzied, only to see the Escalon stands erupt when Perry had the ball stripped and the Cougars recovered on Hilmar’s 41.
It was a wild four-minute stretch that pretty much explains TVL football to the uninitiated: big plays and bigger hits combined with a never-say-die approach and exceedingly loyal fanbases.
Hilmar 0 7 6 0 — 13
Escalon 7 7 0 6 -- 20
E—Ryker Peters 66 run (Alfonso Gonzalez kick)
E—Owen Nash 55 pass from Donovan Rozevink (Gonzalez kick)
H—Broc Perry 7 run (Andre Alves kick)
H—Derek Taylor 11 pass from Jason Pimentel (kick failed)
E—J.P. Lial 3 run (kick failed)