The rise of junior Ryker Peters has coincided with Escalon's success. Propelled by Peters' play at fullback and linebacker, the Cougars have won nine straight, including Saturday's Division V section final against Hilmar. (Samantha Schmidt)

'They've produced NFL stars': Escalon faces Bay Area football factory in bowl

James Burns

Escalon's reaction to Sunday's release of the CIF State Northern California Regional Bowl pairings? Surprised. Stunned. Shocked. And in the end, determined.

It's been that type of season for the Cougars, who overcame long odds to win Trans-Valley League and Sac-Joaquin Section Division V titles and made believers out of many, including themselves.

Escalon (12-1) has been drawn against Marin Catholic, a football factory out of the North Bay, in the Division 4-AA bowl on Friday at San Rafael High School. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. Like the Cougars, Marin Catholic is 12-1 with its only loss to mighty McClymonds of the Oakland Section.

In 12 season under coach Mazi Moayed, the Wildcats are a remarkable 134-22 and have reached this stage in the season three times, including a loss to Central Catholic in the 2015 CIF State Northern California Open Small-School Bowl. Their reputation precedes them.

"They're one of the most well-known programs in Northern California," Beam said. "They've produced NFL stars (Jared Goff, Kahlil Bell, and Travis LaBoy) and Division I athletes every year. They're a private school powerhouse in the North Bay. I'll be honest, we were surprised and shocked to be slated against them, but I can't think of a better opponent for our small-school team to prove themselves against."

Escalon football players and cheerleaders gather for the school's alma mater following a victory over Ripon in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V semifinal. (Samantha Schmidt)

Escalon has already made quite a statement.

The Cougars' senior class went 1-9 as freshmen and entered this fall with just three games of varsity experience because of the shortened COVID season last spring. Nothing in their file suggested a TVL title, section championship or NorCal bowl appearance, but they've defied their stars and re-written their record.

Escalon rolled through the TVL season at 8-0, finding its direction at halftime of its league opener with Hughson on Sept. 17. The Cougars trailed the Huskies, 13-0. Inside the locker room, Beam said the coaching staff challenged the players — many of whom were raised under the lights of Engel Field and cheered on section champions from the stands — to play to a program standard that produced nine section champions before them.

"It was a very stern challenge and a wake-up call," Beam said. "I don't know if we've ever given it to a group of kids like that before. We let a lot of feeling and emotions out at halftime. It was a challenge to them that they better grow up and start living to the standard we expect. I'm awfully proud of them."

He should be.

The Cougars responded with 21 unanswered points to escape Hughson, the first of nine consecutive victories, including back-to-back triumphs over Ripon and Hilmar in the semifinal and final, respectively, to claim the Division V championship.

Escalon has discovered a workhorse fullback in junior Ryker Peters, a two-way player who wears down teams with his hard-hitting style. The junior vaulted the Cougars into the section final with three games of 100 or more rushing yards, including a career-high 205 against Woodland. In the final, he started the scoring with a 66-yard burst. With another big game on Friday, Peters should top the 1,000-yard mark, despite platooning for most of the season.

Defensively, senior Tyler Medina leads a ball-hawking group. Medina ranks among the section's leaders in interceptions with seven. He had two to preserve the Cougars' 10th section championship.

"We like to joke that they were 1-9 as freshmen, but in reality they were 1-9. These seniors got three games as juniors. Only one of them played on the state championship team (in 2019, EJ Lewis)," Beam said. "They go 8-0 against the TVL, and now we're playing in a NorCal regional bowl with a group of players that four months ago we weren't sure would even be this close."

Marin Catholic's offense is prolific. The Wildcats have scored 40 or more points in seven games, and routed Cardinal Newman in the North Coast Section Division IV final, 42-7.

Michael Ingrassia has thrown 31 touchdowns without an interception and the two-star quarterback is surrounded by specimens. Beam charted the starting lineups with his coaching staff on Sunday following the bowl pairings. Among the names, he listed heights to complete the side-by-side comparison between the two schools. Nearly all of Marin Catholic's receivers, running backs and offensive linemen checked in at 6-foot-2 or taller.

"They fill out a uniform," Beam said of the team's physical advantage at nearly every position. "They're going to look the part. We're going to pride ourselves on being tough and being physical, and rely on our smashmouth football game to keep us in a game like this. Their offense may be special, but if we play our game we have an opportunity and a chance."

There is a gold-plated standard for this small-school football program. It greets you as you enter Escalon: Signs hang near the various entrances into the city, each enshrining the state championship teams of 2010 (football), 2011 (baseball) and 2019 (football). If Escalon can impose its will — country grit on both sides of the ball — Beam likes their chances against anybody.

"I'm unbelievably proud of how the kids have responded," he said. "We've gone through adversity in the middle of the year. Once we figured it out at halftime of the Hughson game, this team had been different and they've grown up."