The Escalon High Cougars have taken a rocky road to the state final, and they trust that path has made them stronger.
All that matters now is that they have reached their long-term goal, the CIF Division 4-AA championship game against Northwood of Irvine to be contested Saturday night at 6 o’clock at Engel Field.
“This is the biggest stage,” said coach Andrew Beam, who hopes to guide Escalon (12-3) to its second state plaque in three years. “Our kids have worked hard to get here, but the job is not yet done.”
The job appeared to be too difficult last September when the Cougars, probative favorites in the Trans-Valley League, dropped back-to-back games to Hughson and Hilmar. Worse, they had time to think about their setbacks, as the losses were separated by a bye.
“It was hard to show up at school,” Beam said. “There was some embarrassment honestly. We were humbled. I’m very proud that the kids trusted the process.”
Yes, two league losses can cause anxiety – a normal event for most programs – in Escalon, the winner of 11 Sac-Joaquin Section titles and two on-the-field state crowns. The Cougars didn’t climb out of their rut by reinventing themselves. They remain fairly basic with their Wing-T offense.
Truth be told, they became a better version of themselves. The result was a nine-game winning streak featuring an avenging 42-28 win over Hilmar, a dramatic 35-34 victory over Sonora in the Section D-V final two weeks ago and, last week, an impressive 42-20 win over Pleasant Valley of Chico for the Northern California 4-AA title.
“Without a doubt, we’ve been able to find a better gear,” Beam said. “I think we’ve just gotten better.”
The numbers prove it. Quarterback Donovan Rozevink has passed for 1,925 yards and 24 touchdowns, and Ryker Peters has rushed for 2,031 yards and 30 TDs. Combine them with running back Logan Anderson (885 yards, 11 TDs), receiver Owen Nash (1,075 yards, 15 TDs) and others, and it’s easy to see why Escalon punishes defenses who crowd the line of scrimmage.
Simply, Escalon is peaking at the right time. The Cougars look like the potential powerhouse who extended a good Buchanan team (9-3) before they were beaten 41-40 in overtime.
CalPreps and SBLive list Escalon as a slight favorite over Northwood, which travels north Friday morning. A potential ally for Escalon, especially with bad weather in the forecast, is Engel’s slow natural surface. Northwood has played exactly one game on the real stuff, though Timberwolves coach JC Clarke doesn’t mind.
“We practice on real grass every day,” he said.
Northwood (14-1), which rides a 12-game winning streak, didn’t arrive at this level by accident. Opened in 1999, the northern Irvine school has enjoyed its first major football success the last two years.
The Timberwolves won their first CIF plaque, a Division 11 title, last year. This year, they took home a Division 8 title, a run accented by a win over another state finalist in Laguna Hills. Like Escalon, Northwood has been at its best in the postseason, illustrated by hard-fought wins -- 63-56 over Monrovia, 17-14 over Grand Terrace and, last week, a 10-7 slugout on the road over Kennedy of Delano.
A clutch-4th-and-1 tackle by Michael Lopez deep in Northwood territory extended its season to the maximum.
One of the biggest reasons for Northwood’s success is running back-safety Adam Harper, an athletic and skilled 5-foot-11, 200-pound senior who’s comfortable in the spotlight. There is nothing he cannot do.
Harper has rushed for 1,972 yards and 30 touchdowns and also has completed four passes for TDs. On defense, his 19 tackles last week made him Cal-Hi Sports’ Southern California Defensive Player of the Week.
“He’s an unbelievable kid,” Clarke praised. “He weighed 155 pounds as a freshman, but he was so smart that we had to get him out on the field. He picks up everything so fast.”
Northwood also relies on quarterback Eugene Miyata, a deceptive senior who’s passed for 25 touchdowns and can extend plays with his scrambling skills.
“Harper reminds me of (former Escalon star) Caden Christensen because he plays so well as a running back and a safety,” Beam said. “He just does it all for them. He pops off the screen.”
Clarke, a coaching veteran of over four decades, is a retired teacher who still enjoys the thrill and challenge of Friday night. His team returned only one offensive lineman this season, but they surprised Orange County observers by surpassing the Timberwolves’ 2021 win total (9).
“They (Escalon) are a little bigger than us but not by a lot,” he said. “They fly around on defense, and they pass just often enough to keep you off balance. No. 1 (Peters) and 13 (Nash) look really good.”
Both Escalon and Northwood prefer running the ball but can pass. Miyata and Rozevink have shown improvement in the passing game this season, which sets the stage for a fitting north-south collision.
“We are extremely grateful to be here,” Beam said. “This is always what we had in mind as our goal.”