The Escalon High defense smothers a Sutter ball carrier in a 23-2 victory on Friday, Nov. 18, 2022, in the semifinal round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V playoffs. The Cougars didn't surrender an offensive point in taking out the bracket's top seed.

Sonora-Escalon, D-V championship: Battle of wills & small-school bluebloods

Ron Agostini

Escalon High coach Andrew Beam says his 10-3 Cougars haven’t won anything yet, which some people might consider a stretch for a team chasing its third straight Sac-Joaquin Section title.

But hear Beam out. He has a point.

“We haven’t accomplished anything in all reality,” he said this week. “There is not a patch for this team and nothing going on the locker room walls. They still have something to earn.”

For all who’ve followed the Escalon season, they quickly understand two facts: 1. Beam, not unlike any head coach, is using all motivational methods available to him, and, 2. Technically, he’s right.

Escalon, the pre-season favorite in the Trans-Valley League, was humbled by rare back-to-back losses to Hughson and Hilmar. Just like that, the Cougars knew they would finish no higher than third place. And another reality set in: To compete for a blue banner, they would have to leave cozy Engel Field.

Escalon, after a 55-0 warmup at home over Pacheco, traveled to avenge the loss to Hilmar, then pitched a defense shutout at Sutter 23-2. The Cougars, seeded fifth, take a seven-game winning streak into their highly anticipated Division V title game against No. 2 seed Sonora (10-2) Saturday night at 6 o’clock at St. Mary’s High.

Sonora, the Mother Lode League champion, totaled 97 points to dispatch Center and Dixon. The Wildcats seek their third blue banner and their first since 2015.

What Sonora does to dominate the MLL – it’s lost exactly once since it joined the league in 2014 – is what will be required against Escalon: Run the ball on offense, and stop the run on defense.

Which, by the way, also will top Escalon’s priority list.

“Escalon is physical and well-coached,” Sonora coach Bryan Craig said. “We have to match them.”

The Sonora line is anchored by a four-year varsity veteran and Utah commit Roger Alderman (6-foot-5, 260) and Tyler Sells (6-3, 230). Both seldom leave the field – Sells has totaled 7 ½ sacks – and have ruined more than a few opposition's game plans.

“Those two guys are dudes,” Beam praised.

Escalon counters up front with seniors Tate Christensen and Hunter Budd, junior Giovanni Chavez (he returned for the playoffs after an early-season injury), a first-rate blocking tight end in sophomore Ryan Lewis and others.

They’ve made room for fullback Ryker Peters (1,712 yards, 27 touchdowns), who nursed almost season-long injuries to reach this point, and Logan Anderson (13 touchdowns).

Conversely, Sonora relies on the decisions of option quarterback Adam Curnow who often keeps or hands off to Audie Peeples (935 yards, eight TDs) or the fleet slot Bryce Nicolson (10 TDs).

Curnow can throw, but his numbers do not compare with Escalon junior quarterback Donovan Rozevink (1,539 yards, 18 TDs), who boasts effective targets in Owen Nash and Lewis. Rozevink’s improvement has accented the Escalon winning streak.

Sonora's Chance Pimentel rises above the Dixon defensive back for the touchdown in their Sac-Joaquin Section Division V semifinal game on Friday, Nov. 18, 2022. (Photographs by Kim)

“Both their running backs are downhill guys,” Craig said. “We’ve got to make sure we match them physically while they run downhill.”

Here is the essential point: Both teams find their comfort zone on the ground. Whomever has success, while disrupting their foe, will prevail.

“It’s small-school power football in two different versions,” Beam said, referring to Escalon’s Wing T vs. Sonora’s option game. “We both try to accomplish the same thing.”

Escalon won D-VI in 2019 (en route to a state title) and D-V last year after the COVID year. Overall, the Cougars vie for section title No. 11.

The matchup also contains a subplot. The section will hold league realignment meetings in January, and the drumbeat already has begun toward Sonora shifting to the TVL. Craig correctly questions how many future playoff berths would be available in the already loaded conference, while Beam sees an enticing possibility.

“We could be the small-school Sierra Foothill League of the south,” he said.

That already may be true. It’s a provocative thought, but first things first. There is a section title on the line.