Hughson Football
Hughson drops heartbreaker 21-14 to Escalon, still has eyes on defending Section title

The disappointment of Hughson’s 21-14 loss to archrival Escalon on Friday doesn’t diminish one simple fact in Coach Shaun King’s mind: The Huskies have been down this road before. In fact, they only have to look back to last season to remind themselves how much remains within their control to accomplish.

A year ago, after Hughson lost to Hilmar, it regrouped and ripped off six straight victories – five of them in an historic postseason run capped by Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI and State Division 5AA championships. King said that was the message he gave the team Friday night.

“Our goals haven’t changed,” he said. “We still have a lot of football left in us. We went through this last year. There is lots of senior leadership on this team. The book is still being written on 2023. We told them not to let up.”

Friday’s Trans-Valley League showdown at Husky Memorial Stadium may have been played in late September, but it felt more like a playoff game. Any why not? Escalon, like Hughson, won Section and State titles last year, then challenged itself with a demanding non-league schedule this season. Both schools were 4-1 and well rested after coming off byes. Even if they weren’t among the top small-school teams in the Section, just the fact their rivalry stretches back nearly a century would be enough to excite the players, coaches and fans on both sides.

“It was electric, like a playoff atmosphere,” King said. “It was standing room only.”

The Huskies – after being stopped on the goal line by Escalon’s defense early in the first quarter – rallied to score on their next drive on a short run by fullback David Burns. Normally the team’s leading tackler from his middle linebacker spot, Burns (11 carries, 110 yards) starred on offense against the Cougars, running for hard yards inside behind a physical Hughson offensive line.

“They controlled the line of scrimmage,” King said of his linemen. “They came out ready to play. We challenged them the last two weeks and they showed up. I’m very proud of how they responded.”

The teams were tied at 7-7 at halftime after Escalon scored in the second quarter. The Cougars added another TD early in the third period to take the lead for good, then cemented the game with an 18-play, 81-yard drive that spanned the end of the third quarter and much of the fourth quarter, chewing up 8 minutes off the clock. Escalon twice converted fourth downs on the drive, which resulted in a 21-7 advantage.

“It was frustrating,” King said of his defense’s inability to get off the field or create a key turnover. “They went old-school Escalon. It was a good game plan by them.”

Down two scores with barely 4 minutes left to play, Hughson showed the heart of a champion. The Huskies – pinned on their own 2-yard line after the kickoff – went the distance in about 2 minutes. A 50-yard run by Alex Villarreal got Hughson to midfield and a 20-yard dash by quarterback Robert McDaniel pushed the Huskies closer. Villarreal then capped the drive with an 8-yard TD run a few plays later to make the score 21-14.

Hughson tried for an onside kick, but Escalon recovered and ran the clock out.

“I’m proud of how we played, of how physical we played,” King said. “That was two very good football teams out there. I just wish we had more time on the clock at the end.”

The result leaves Escalon (5-1, 1-0) tied with Hilmar and Ripon for first place in the TVL. Hughson (4-2, 0-1) is knotted with Livingston and Modesto Christian after the first week of league play. With four games left, anything can happen, though, especially if someone can knock off Escalon and create the possibility of a multi-team tie.

Hughson will travel to Livingston (1-5, 0-1) this week. The Huskies then host Modesto Christian in their final home game before finishing up on the road against Hilmar and Ripon.

With Escalon slotted in Division IV and Hilmar in Division V for the Section playoffs, King thinks his club still has a strong chance to defend its Division VI title.

“I still think we’re in position to get the No. 1 seed in Division 6, along with Sonora and Sutter,” he said. “I still expect us to be practicing on Thanksgiving Day and playing the (Sac-Joaquin Section championship) game after Thanksgiving, so nothing changes.”