The Cats might be on their way back, but it still wasn’t enough for a win.
In a game that oscillated between a defensive stalemate and offensive breakouts, the ritual berating of the officiating staff and on-field ejections, the Hilmar High School Yellowjackets buzzed their way to victory over the Sonora High School Wildcats 39-20.
The Wildcats never held a lead in the game, but they were persistent in their efforts to narrow the scoreline each time the Yellowjackets scored points of their own.
This was a team that hadn’t scored a touchdown until the third game of the season, and allowed a continuous procession of touchdowns against them in their previous games.
On Friday Sonora High School was eager to reverse the trend, and very nearly achieved their goal.
By the start of the varsity game, the hazy orange sun already retreated underneath the home field bleachers and night slowly crept over the field. The temperature dropped dramatically from just an hour prior and dust rose to in the air from the dirt track surrounding the field.
The game did not actually commence until 8 p.m. due to the junior varsity game going over time. The Wildcats junior varsity team fell to the Yellowjackets junior varsity team by a score of 34-6, a foreboding prediction for what was to come for the Wildcats varsity squad. At the start of the game the season records for the competing teams were opposites of one another. Hilmar High School was 3-0, having scored more than 40 points in each of the games and never allowing more than single-digit scorelines against them.
Sonora High School was 0-3 heading into the game, having only scored one touchdown in the entire season thus far.
Despite the odds appearing to be stacked against Sonora and the fact that the team was more than 60 miles away from home, many team supporters and parents elected to make the trip to Hilmar High School. The home fans on the west end of the field still dwarfed the Wildcat fans on the east side, however, and made their audible support of their team early on.
From the Yellowjackets’ opening drive, they made formidable use of their run game. On just the second play, a more than 30-yard run brought them into Wildcats territory. Two plays after that, a more than 30-yard pass put in their first touchdown.
The Yellowjackets were soon upended by their own forced errors, throwing one incomplete pass that spiraled backwards away from a receiver and forced a 20-yard loss.
Wildcats junior Nick Crockett, alternately functioning in a receiver and running pack position, reignited the hopes of his team with a rousing run through the backfield part-way through the first quarter. Moments later, a pass to senior wide receiver Evan Bearden (who pummeled over a Hilmar defensive back with his shoulder) earned Sonora High School another first down. The Wildcats were unable to generate another first down conversion, but proved to the Yellowjackets early in the game that their offensive strategy could be formidable.
On the subsequent defensive efforts, the Wildcats defense was forced to compensate for the Yellowjackets’ repeated incursions through the defensive line into the backfield. Caught back on their own 20-yard line, the Yellowjackets eventually broke through on a full-field run to extend their lead to 14 points.
In the second quarter, the Yellowjackets were hampered by their own costly fouls. On their first drive of the second quarter, an apparent touchdown was reversed due to a holding call, and a subsequent fumble brought them back further. Faced with a third down and over thirty yards to a first down, the Wildcats pushed them back further with a tackle in the backfield.
When the Wildcats retrieved the ball, they were forced to punt again, but retrieved the ball only a few plays later on a fumble.
That’s when senior running Mike McKernan broke on through to the other side.
After winding out of the grasp of a few Yellowjacket defenders, McKernon sprinted through much of the field before he was taken down by the ankles at the three-yard line.
Senior quarterback Jake Gookin finished it off and forced in a Sonora High School touchdown moments later.
The team and its supporters were rejuvenated by the score and bellowed in support of their team, pounding their feet into the metal bleachers with calls of “D-FENCE.” In each subsequent play, the Wildcats hammered the running backs and quarterbacks of Hilmar High School in the backfield, and forced a turnover on downs.
The score remained at 14-7 at the end of the half, and Sonora High School left the field with confidence, knowing they were still in competitive standing.
From the opening drive, the Wildcats showed the same ambition to score again, making an attritional advance up the field. But a lobbed ball upfield instead fell into unexpected hands, with the Yellowjackets earning an early interception. The defense made an admirable stop, and a shanked punt setup Sonora with strong field position before a fumble reversed their fortunes again.
On later punt from Sonora High School, senior Devun Battle made a sliding drive into the ball after it bounced off a Hilmar High School player’s chest to the ground. The officiating staff incurred the boos and hollers of the Wildcat crowd when a wrestling match on the ground was ultimately decided in favor of the Yellowjackets.
On play later, with four minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Yellowjackets took advantage of the open field to score another touchdown again.
Frustrations soon boiled over as a Hilmar High School player appeared to strike a Sonora High School in the head on the field. The player removed his helmet on field in an attempt to engage the player, and was subsequently ejected from the game.
But the Wildcats didn’t let that setback deter them, with Gookin running over 50 yards on the very next play to bring the score to 21-14.
The claims of impropriety by the referees continued into the fourth quarter. A Wildcats receiver appeared to collect a long pass just within the field boundaries, but the play was deemed out of bounds.
“Garbage!” yelled a parent from the stands.
A few plays later, Hilmar High school widened the score again with a long run into the endzone, but missed the subsequent PAT.
The Wildcats refused to let their momentum be reduced from the challenge and forced themselves upfield with an driving run from Gookin. In the next moments, after Yellowjackets player was ejected from the game for a personal foul, Gookin was bodied into the endzone with some assistance from his teammates to put another touchdown on the board.
A missed PAT from the Wildcats evened the earlier miss from the Yellowjackets, bringing the score to 27-20.
But in the final minutes of the game, Hilmar High School ran with the advantage of home field support to assure their victory.
They scored on their next drive, bringing the score (with another missed PAT) to 33-20, and again with two minutes remaining (with a blocked PAT) up to 39-20.
The Wildcats were unable to recover, but left the field with some comfort that they may have overcome their touchdown deficiency.
Sonora High School will play their next game against Merrill F. West High School in Tracy on Friday September 14 at 7 p.m.