Ryker Peters’ legs ached as the carries mounted. Giving in to the fatigue was not an option, of course, not with a state championship to be won.
So Peters, Escalon High’s rugged and relentless fullback-inside linebacker, took one handoff after the next from quarterback Donovan Rozevink. On his 16th consecutive carry, Peters pounded into the end zone with 3:31 left and the Cougars were on their way to a 28-7 victory over Northwood of Irvine in the CIF State Division 4-AA championship game.
“I didn’t realize that the team would rely on me so much at that point,” Peters said. “I felt the trust from the offensive line, so it was ‘go’ time. No matter how tired I was, it was time to give everything.”
Peters’ memorable performance accented a season-long study in perseverance. He finished with 2,208 yards and 31 touchdowns (No. 2 on Escalon’s all-time list behind only Nathan Chunn’s 2,240 yards and 34 TDs in 2012). His 2,208 yards also was tops in the Sac-Joaquin Section over No. 2 Tyler Jacklich of Central Catholic (2,206) and No. 3 Jaxson Percoats of Buhach Colony (1,992).
More important, Peters anchored Escalon’s rally from a mid-season slump to its third straight section title (the school’s 11th) and its second state plaque in three seasons.
His overall impact made his selection as frontrowpreps.com’s Small Schools Football of the Year a no-brainer.
“Our fullback is the heart and soul of our offense, but he was more than that,” Escalon coach Andrew Beam praised. “I can’t say he’s the best we’ve had, but if we had a Mt. Rushmore of running backs at Escalon, he would be on it.”
Consider Peters’ impact on championship night. The Engel Field turf, a bog-like mess after a day-long downpour, could have mushroomed the smallest error into a game-changing event. Escalon led a stubborn Northwood team by only 14-7 late in the third quarter.
At this point, Beam and his staff made a decision: Any pass or lateral run was next to impossible. Ditto for pulling linemen. So Escalon elected to run straight ahead with Peters, the hammer of its Wing-T attack.
The march began with a Peters 8-yard gain, followed by an incomplete pass. Then Peters rushed for a first down, and a theme kicked into place. Escalon ran exactly two plays, off-tackle to Peters or a drive straight into the line with Jamin Miller throwing the lead block.
Rozevink and Beam monitored Peters’ status between plays, and there was no reason for variety. Peters wanted the ball, Escalon was delighted to give it to him, and the home crowd sensed the growing momentum.
“The defense for the last 40 yards knew what was coming,” Peters said. “It was hard grit. It was my will, our will against theirs.”
An Escalon personal foul complicated matters but only delayed the inevitable. Three plays after a first-and-goal from the 16, Peters rumbled home on his 16th straight attempt. The drive, including the penalty, covered 100 yards. He accounted for every foot.
“It felt like bliss,” Peters said later.
Owen Nash sealed the win with an interception and 43-yard return for a touchdown a few minutes later. Both sides, however, understood when the game was decided---Peters to the left, Peters to the right, Peters up the middle, over and over and over.
“That is going to stand out in my memory,” Beam said. “It was our state-championship drive. You can’t say enough about Ryker’s role.”
Peters’ role was indispensable all season. Put it this way: The arc of Escalon’s entire season was shaped by his physical status.
Much was expected from this Escalon team, and Peters – he rushed for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns for the 12-2 Cougars in 2021 – bulked up to about 215 pounds. Thus, he started fast and so did his team.
Mighty Buchanan of Clovis made the trip north and was fortunate to escape with a 41-40 victory in overtime. But Peters incurred a twisted ankle during the late August game and aggravated the injury two weeks later at Kimball.
Peters, one of the team captains along with Nash and Logan Anderson, didn't miss a game but Beam lessened his workload, especially on offense. He was paced through games, and Escalon’s fortunes dropped. A shocking 29-14 loss to Hughson, followed by a bye and a late 21-20 loss at Hilmar forced a new reality for the boys wearing purple.
There would be no Trans-Valley League title, no additional patch on their letterman’s jackets. Goals were adjusted.
“We had to take a long look at ourselves. We got too high and mighty,” Peters said. “We knew we were better than those teams, but they beat us. They showed up to play. …We had something to prove.”
The record will show that Escalon (13-3) won its last 10 games. Peters didn’t return to form, however, until the third game in that run, a 43-0 blanking of Ripon.
His importance to the team never was disputed. Though not the fastest running back Escalon has put on the field, he might have been the most durable. Beam noted how Peters could rumble off-tackle three or four times, then race away from the secondary on the next snap.
Peters unleashed a block against Buchanan with such force that it knocked the player’s helmet off his head, and he didn’t return to the game. Peters’ strength on defense (he averaged about six tackles per game) was first seen as a junior, and it didn’t change.
Probably the most important play of Escalon’s season took place during the Cougars’ dramatic 35-34 win over Sonora in the section D-V final. Sonora, leading by a touchdown with less than four minutes left, stood only a couple of first downs away from ending Escalon’s season.
To no one’s surprise, Peters had a major role in the season-changing play. On third-and-5 from the Sonora 19-yard line, Sonora quarterback Adam Curnow threw a pass that caught a little too much air. It was intercepted by Anderson, who quickly picked up a convoy of blockers and returned it 35 yards for the game-tying touchdown.
Curnow’s pass wobbled because he threw it off his back foot. Why? Because a blitzing Peters made contact and forced the off-target throw.
“Ryker didn’t bring him down but he got there and bothered him,” Beam said. “He was coming full-gear and made him uncomfortable and rushed his throw.”
Escalon upgraded all facets of its game. Rozevink improved as did players such as Nash and the team’s linemen. The avenging 42-28 victory over Hilmar in the bracket buoyed Escalon’s confidence. But Peters always was the Cougars’ default key.
“We saw a fresh body and fresh legs (from Peters) at the end, much like what he did the first four weeks,” Beam said.
The Cougars gladly pressed that default key 16 straight times in the state final, and Peters delivered in a way that will not be forgotten.