Hughson vs. Muir
Hughson football team crowned state champions after 9-6 win over Muir in mud and rain

State champions. For as long as football is played at Hughson High, those two words will be used to describe the 2022 team after the Huskies persevered in the rain and the mud to defeat Muir of Pasadena 9-6 Saturday night for the California Division 5-AA title.

The victory – accomplished in terrible field conditions at Hughson Memorial Stadium – capped a storybook season for the Huskies (13-2), who were crowned state and Sac-Joaquin Section champions despite finishing second in the regular season in the Trans-Valley League to Hilmar.

“This is what we shoot for. This is what we talked about all the way back in the spring,” gushed Hughson coach Shaun King. “We may not have accomplished the first goal (winning league), but we got the next two and they were much bigger.

“This is something our players and our coaches and our community will never forget.”

It is the second time the Huskies have earned a state title, but the first time on the field. The 1997 team was voted state champs before there were NorCal and state playoffs.

Saturday’s victory came in terrible playing conditions – a sideways rain, strong winds and a mud pit in the middle of the field, especially between the 40-yard lines. The footballs were swapped out after every play and the mud wiped off, but once the balls were wet, they were slippery the rest of the game.

Holding on to the ball was an issue for both teams. At one point, Hughson running back Liam Bridgford came to the sideline so coaches could cut off the sleeves of his shirt, which were caked with mud and made it harder for him to hang on to the ball.

“We practiced with a wet ball all week, but it’s really hard to replicate those conditions,” King said. “We knew it would be a field position kind of game. We had it in the first half and they had it in the third quarter.”

Despite the weather, Hughson’s hearty fans turned out as usual, packing the stands on both sides of the field.

“It was standing room only, which was amazing given the conditions,” King said.

The Huskies gave their supporters something to cheer about early when Roylee Prunty recovered a Muir fumble on the Mustangs’ first possession. Starting at the Muir 25-yard line, David Delgado broke off a run to the 6, where Bridgford plowed in for what would turn out to be Hughson’s only touchdown. Ernie Mendoza navigated the mud to make the point after for a 7-0 lead.

The teams slogged through a couple of punts, but Hughson had the advantage in field possession. That paid off late in the first quarter when Muir – pinned deep in its own territory – tried to punt. The snap went over the punter’s head, and he alertly kicked the ball out of the back of the endzone for a safety rather than risk Hughson recovering for a touchdown.

“It was a smart play by their punter,” said King.

The result was a 9-0 lead, which the Huskies took into halftime.

King’s message at the break was simple – hold on to the ball and maintain field position. That was easier said than done.

“It was one of those nights where the conditions were so bad it was hard to do anything,” he said. “The idea was get three yards a play and hold on to the football. It wasn’t a time to get tricky.”

Hughson’s Larkin Meyer and David Burns intercepted Muir passes in the third quarter, but the Huskies couldn’t capitalize on either of them. Instead, it was a Hughson mistake – a lost fumble on its own 3-yard line – that set up Muir for its only score, a short run by Mikale Clark late in the third quarter. The Mustangs failed on a two-point conversion to make the score 9-6 Hughson.

The Huskies virtually abandoned their passing game because of the weather, with sophomore quarterback Robert McDaniel completing one of his two throws. Instead, they kept the ball on the ground behind Bridgford, who carried 29 times for 98 yards.

“We were holding our breath at every handoff, that’s how slippery it was,” said King.

Muir’s final possession came with 7 minutes to play in the game after another Hughson fumble. But the Mustangs went backwards thanks to a tackle for a loss by Delgado and then a penalty.

Hughson took over with 5 minutes left in the game and patiently ran out the clock by consistently gaining three or four yards per carry and converting two critical fourth-down conversions – one on a Muir penalty and the other on a long run by Bridgford.

As the clock ticked down to :00, the celebration began as students and parents and others stormed the muddy field.

“It’s just awesome!” said Hughson Unified Superintendent Brenda Smith. “We are incredibly proud of our coaches and student athletes.”

Hughson’s journey to the state title was full of dramatic moments.

The Huskies survived double-overtime in the first round of the Section playoffs, beating Twelve Bridges 35-34 on Bridgford’s two-point conversion on the final play of the game. They overcame a 10-point deficit to beat Orestimba 21-14 in the next round thanks a clutch goal-line stand late in the game. They edged Summerville 14-13 for the Section title by stopping a two-point conversion with 10 seconds left in the game. And they came from 18 points down in the fourth quarter to knock off Ripon Christian 31-28 for the NorCal title.

King said it was hard to imagine one team stacking up so many big moments during one playoff run.

“The double-overtime game was amazing,” he said. “Then we came from 10 down against Orestimba to win. The goal-line stand against Summerville might have been the biggest play, but we also converted a fourth-and-20 against Ripon Christian that was amazing.”

And now the Huskies are celebrating a state championship. They received a huge trophy to keep at the school, and the players and coaches all will get rings and hats. The team will be honored at Tuesday’s school board meeting and there is talk of a parade downtown in the future.

“Coach King and the boys have done an amazing job to bring home the Section and state titles,” said Hughson High Principal Loren Lighthall. “The support from the community has been incredible and the team felt the energy and love from so many. It has been a magical ride and been so much fun for HHS and all those that support us.”

After beginning practice in late May, taking a team-building camping trip to Clark’s Fork for three days and two nights in July, and then playing for 15 of the past 16 weeks, King said he and his players are ready for some rest.

“They have one heartbeat,” King said of his players. “They bonded over summer and became a family over the season. This team will not be forgotten. After the game Saturday, all the seniors told our juniors and sophomores they will be back to root us on next year. That’s the kind of culture you want.”