HILMAR – The faraway look in Bradley Morris’ eyes suggested a young man who did not totally grasp what he had just done.
Which is understandable. He had never before been a football hero. Until Friday night.
Morris, a Hilmar High backup senior quarterback thrust into the heat of a typically hard-hitting Hilmar-Escalon showdown, became the MVP for every player who’s ever waited on the sideline for his chance. His 8-yard scoring strike to Derek Taylor with 9:05 to go – followed by Spencer Azevedo’s third extra point – was the difference in the Yellowjackets’ pulsating 21-20 victory at McSweeney Field.
“First time I’ve been thrown into a situation – win or go home,” said Morris who, by the way, held for all three of the important conversion kicks. “I heard my number called and thought, ‘I gotta do something.’”
Morris, an inconspicuous 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds, is Hilmar’s scout-team quarterback. Simply, he prepares the Yellowjacket defense for the next opponent. That was his primary role until sophomore quarterback Caden Bailey (138 rushing yards, TD) grabbed his head in pain after a hard hit early in the fourth quarter.
Coach Frank Marques said Bailey – appearing in only his fourth varsity game – suffered a concussion. Hilmar, already weakened by the early-season loss of Hudson Azevedo, needed another QB. Up stepped Morris.
“He never had taken live reps that mattered ,” Marques said.
Morris rushed for four yards, then handed off to Luis Vargas (19 carries, 156 yards, TD ) for 26 yards to put Hilmar in business. Then, on 3rd-and-goal from the Escalon 8 yard line, Morris looked to his right and noticed Taylor, the Hilmar wide receiver, with a chance to release inside against Escalon corner Owen Nash.
“I thought, ‘Well, this is destined,’” Morris said.
Taylor burst to his left, and Morris found him in the middle of the end zone.
“That was a play of a lifetime,” Marques praised. “He (Morris) threw a dart.”
Taylor, a rangy 6-foot-5 senior, wasn’t finished. Escalon positioned itself for a dramatic victory, but the Cougars’ 40-yard field goal attempt for the win was smothered by Taylor’s right forearm. Hilmar ran out the final 1:41 and celebrated its first win over Escalon since 2018.
“Best feeling in the world. I don’t think I’ve been any happier,” Taylor said. “Brad saw the off-coverage and made the play.”
The Yellowjackets (4-3, 3-0) own the inside track to a Trans-Valley League title with back-to-back victories over Ripon and Escalon. The Cougars (3-3, 0-2), the defending champions and preseason favorites, have been stung with losses to Hughson and Hilmar.
Since Hilmar’s state title in 2018, Escalon topped the Yellowjackets in Sac-Joaquin Section title games in 2019 and ’21.
“I was not liking the trend,” Marques said. “Every time we play Escalon, it has been tough. It’s nice to get one back.”
The game, similar to Escalon-Hilmar slugouts waged for decades, even contained a tinge of controversy. The officials hesitated on the Cougars’ 30-yard field goal attempt, one that would have given them a 23-14 lead late in the third quarter. After about a 30-second conference, the kick was ruled wide left.
The play illustrated Hilmar’s superior kicking all night. The Yellowjackets connected on all three PATs while Escalon missed a conversion and the two field goals. McKade Jensen’s long kickoffs forced Escalon into less-than-good field position.
“That’s what happens when you can’t make plays on special teams,” Escalon coach Andrew Beam said. “You can’t be chasing points. It’s been a problem all year, and it bit us once again tonight.”
Though Nash was beaten on the game-deciding pass, he also was the reason Escalon led during the second half. The 6-4 senior, outleaping Hilmar defenders downfield, caught nine of Donovan Rozevink’s passes for 142 yards, two touchdowns and a 2-pointer.
Escalon turned two Hilmar turnovers into touchdowns – the Yellowjackets fumbled away the opening kickoff, followed by a 33-yard touchdown pass to Nash on the first snap – and probably wondered on the bus ride home how it lost.
One reason was a stingy Hilmar defense that limited Ryker Peters, one of California’s top touchdown scorers, to only 56 yards and a single TD.
That said, the football gods nodded to Hilmar. Off the bench came Morris, who completed only his team’s third pass. For the victory.