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Battle of the state champions
Hughson v Escalon 2022
Hughson outplayed Escalon in their 2022 matchup, winning 29-14 (Journal file photo).

Hughson and Escalon have been Trans-Valley League rivals for decades, but never before have they squared off with each squad entering the game as a defending state champion.

Well, that changes this Friday night at Husky Memorial Stadium, when the defending CIF 4-AA champion Cougars (4-1) make the 20-mile trip to take on defending CIF 5-AA champion Hughson (4-1).

Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.

During the 1990s, Hughson and Escalon seemingly traded off winning Sac-Joaquin Section titles. And if the Huskies or Cougars didn’t bring home the blue banner, the road to that blue banner went through those cities.

But, as is often the case, the rivalry was diminished over the past two years as Hughson fell from the ranks of the section’s elite.

Not only did that change last year with Hughson’s state title, the Huskies served notice 11 weeks earlier when they beat Escalon 29-14 in their TVL meeting. 

And two people who couldn’t happier about the rivalry’s rejuvenation? Former Hughson coach Reyn Franca and former Escalon coach Mark Loureiro.

“It was a major rivalry for a ton of years,” said Loureiro, the Sac-Joaquin Section’s winningest coach at 277-61-1. “It was always for first place and for a higher seeding in the playoffs. It was a great matchup coaching-wise, player-wise. It’s what a rivalry is all about.

“But it’s only a rivalry when both teams are good. And Hughson was down for a stretch. But now it’s right back where it should be.”

Franca echoed those sentiments when he spoke to the Journal this week.

“The path to the Trans-Valley League title went through Hughson or Escalon,” said Franca, referring to the 1990s. “That’s just the way it was. It was going to be a showdown, and winner of that game would determine the league champion.”

Each coach will tell you that Escalon cost Hughson some section banners and Hughson cost Escalon a few. League titles, too. But they wouldn’t change it. Crossing swords with a worthy opponent made winning that much sweeter. 

Hilmar is probably the only other team who could factor in to the TVL race, but the defending-champion Yellowjackets are a young squad still trying to find their way.  Right now, the Huskies and Cougars stand on a different rung of the TVL ladder.

“One thing I’ve told my coaches is to soak it all in because this has been a long time coming for Hughson,” said Huskies head coach Shaun King. “It’s exciting. You won’t have a game of this magnitude every year. It’s going to be a fun night.”

Escalon head coach Andrew Beam, who coached against King when they were both junior varsity coaches, agrees with his counterpart.

“This is what small-town football is all about,” said Beam, who has won two state titles since taking over for Loureiro after the 2017 season. “You wouldn’t believe the number of texts and emails I’ve received from guys who played in the ’90s telling me that this was their rivalry.”

Beam’s first state title came in 2019, the same year that TVL foe Ripon won its state title. The two teams played in 2020, but that was the truncated COVID season, with no fans in the stands. It didn’t have the luster that Friday’s game will have.

The Huskies are led on offense by quarterback Robert McDaniel, who can either hand the ball to Alex Villarreal, or look downfield for a number of weapons — Malakai Sumter, Larkin Meyer, Max Mankins or Bryce McDaniel. On defense, Hughson is led by middle linebacker David Burns, safety David Delgado and Meyer at cornerback.

Escalon, meanwhile is led by three-year starting quarterback Donovan Rozevink, and a running back by committee: Joshua Graham, Jamin Miller and Talan Reider. On defense, linebackers Miller and Nick Krieger, along with defensive end Ryan Lewis will garner a lot of attention.

“I’ll be honest,” said Loureiro. “I miss the Friday night lights. I miss the locker room and the camaraderie. I don’t miss the heat and the three weeks of practices in August, but the strategizing and the game-planning, I miss it to this day.”