The Sonora High School Wildcats tried to claw their way to victory, but were unable to keep the Escalon High School Cougars from conquering their den.
The 34-6 loss did have one moment of enthusiasm for the team, with senior running back Mike McKernon scoring the team’s first and only touchdown of the season in the third quarter.
“We fought for that touchdown, we knew we could do it. It took until we could get it,” McKernan said.
The game on Friday night was, “not good, but better,” Coach Brian Craig said after the game. Like the two games prior, Sonora High School was hampered and disabled by a collection of fumbles, penalties and unable to convert on fourth downs.
But those errors were “fixable,” Craig said, and when they were, it would change the composition of the team the fans watched on the field.
The stands at Dunleavy Field appeared more filled than the previous week, when the Wildcats fell to the RIpon High School Indians 34-0. The optimism of the Sonora High School football fans was apparent, and they were eager for a reversal of the misfortune that characterized the early season.
At the start of the game, the sun emanated an orange haze on the hillside and grilled fare from the Sonora Future Farmers of America wafted in the air.
From the opening kickoff, the Wildcats looked outpaced by and underprepared compared to the Cougars. The kickoff flopped out of bounds, putting Escalon High School on advantageous field position for their opening drive. On the first play, a running back barrelled through multiple Sonora players on a 50-yard slough upfield. The Wildcats defended admirably, mitigating the extent of the Escalon advance with repeated high pressure tackles in the backfield.
But only a handful of plays later, a long arcing pass over the Sonora defense put the Cougars up 7-0 with nine minutes remaining.
The first Sonora drive upfield failed to yield a first down and set the Cougars up at about the 50 yard line on their next drive. A subsequent punt by Escalon was matched with another by Sonora, and the teams appeared to be at a stalemate until the Wildcats made an incremental push up field at the beginning of the second half.
Leading up to the that moment, the Wildcat defense was intransigent in their efforts to obstruct, delay, and inflict brute force on the Cougars. Defensive lineman senior Garrett Anderson and senior defensive back senior Karson Clifton tumbled and grappled the the Cougars’ offense, strangulating their efforts to make advancements of the field.
With the ball in the hands of the offense, senior quarterback Jake Gookin deftly levied the ball for long runs by senior running back CJ Castleman, but also made his own valuable runs into the Cougars’ backfield.
But their efforts did not come to fruition, with Gookin taking a hard sack on a fourth down near the 20 yard line in Cougars territory. And Escalon High School seemed intent on undercutting the newfound motivations of the Wildcats.
Following a 40-yard upfield run, and another bursting winding run through the Sonora defense, Escalon High School widened their lead to 14-0. McKernon was essential in gaining yardage on upfield sprints, as was senior wide receiver Evan Bearden who made two equivalent seven yard catches on the left flank.
But again, the Wildcats’ confidence belied an eventual mistake that dashed their hopes of gaining their first points. One fumble on the 31-yard line, and the ball was back in the hands of Escalon High School.
Luckily, the end of the quarter came seconds later, but Sonora High School went into the halftime just as they had in their previous games: shutout from points and multiple touchdowns away from evening the scoreline.
During the cheerleader and band performances, the Wildcats crowd was largely silent except for the sociable bickering of groups of high school students. A few cowbells jangled in anticipation of the next half, but the optimism that characterized the opening moments had clearly waned.
Castleman re-amplified the crowd energy from the opening moments with a kickoff return that secured advantageous field position for the Wildcats. But on the next play, Castleman brought the team backward on a holding penalty and forced the Wildcats to punt. Penalties for tipping the punter and a holding penalty brought the Cougars back, too, but a few passes and penalties took them upfield and into Wildcats territory yet again.
With three minutes remaining in the third half, the Cougars advanced to the one yard line and forced the football in yet again. With 3 minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Wildcats were down by three touchdowns, 21-0.
The Wildcats again made an admirable drive up field, but another mistake cost them their momentum after a pitch pass bounced off the chest of a Sonora High School player and was readily retrieved by an oncoming Cougar.
In the opening minutes of fourth quarter, the Cougars continued to prey on the errors of the Wildcats and took in another run to the endzone.
It was a hollow achievement to the ultimate scoreline when the Wildcats scored their first points of the season, but nonetheless, it roused the spirit of the crowd. After 11 scoreless quarters, McKernon blasted into the Cougar defense on a forceful plough of a run and pushed the ball just into the endzone. A subsequent two-point conversion attempt after a botched PAT failed, as did an onside kick attempt, bringing the score to 28-6 with seven minutes remaining in the game.
Unwilling to let the Wildcats rest on their laurels, the Cougars scored another touchdown with two minutes remaining. In a final act of defiance, the PAT was blocked by the Wildcats to bring upon the ending score of 34-6.
Next week, the Sonora High School football team will face Hilmar High School in an away game at 7 p.m.
Craig said the game would be a “huge test” against a team that competed, but lost in a state championship during the 2017-18 season.
But with a little time and focus, McKernon said, “we can do anything.”