After a heartbreaking loss in the final seconds of last week’s game, the Hilmar High varsity football team bounced back on Friday night with a 40-7 victory over fellow Trans-Valley League team Livingston High.
It was the final home game for the Yellowjackets in this shortened COVID season which has seen them play against much-larger Central California Conference opponents like Atwater, Buhach Colony and Merced, but Friday felt like familiar territory for the team as they met a TVL rival on the gridiron.
“When you start out the season with those three games, that’s a whole different level of speed than we see in our league. It was just good to see our kids play so hard and do what they had to do,” Hilmar head coach Frank Marques said. “Livingston has traditionally played us really, really tough and they fought tonight until the very end.”
Hilmar put points on the scoreboard immediately, but it was their defense and special teams — not the offense — who put them ahead 14-0 in the first quarter. Livingston’s first possession of the game was spoiled almost immediately on their third play when Hilmar senior Cole Bailey intercepted a screen pass with a one-handed grab and ran it 17 yards into the endzone. Just a few plays later, sophomore Derek Taylor returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown.
It was an emotional night for Bailey, who played his last game at McSweeney Field after competing there since he was a child. His big play in the first quarter was simply thanks to his coaches putting him in the right spot, he said.
“I was just there to make the play. I saw the guy going out and just played ball,” he said. “I’ve been playing at this field for 10 years, so seeing it all come to a close is hard.”
The Yellowjackets continued their offensive attack in the second quarter, with sophomore running back Cannon Irelan completing first a 20-yard touchdown, then a 35-yard touchdown just two possessions later. By the half, senior Randy Lozano had tacked on an 8-yard run of his own to put Hilmar up 34-0.
Marques was impressed by the team’s two sophomores on offense, Taylor and Irelan, and called them “special” as he rarely brings younger players up to the varsity level.
“I think our future is really bright and I’m excited for the next couple of years,” Marques said. “The great thing about Cannon and Derek is that they are that next-level player that doesn’t come around very often.”
The Yellowjacket defense held Livingston to just 25 offensive yards in the first half, while their own offense pumped out 182 — enough to give the second string a chance to get into the game in the second half. In addition to Bailey’s pick 6 in the first quarter, linebacker Blake Westmoreland had a fumble recovery and Lozano also had an interception. The final score for Hilmar came courtesy of yet another pick 6 by defensive back Owen Vega with just over a minute left in the game.
The defense didn’t give up any touchdowns on the night; Livingston’s only score of the game came via a blocked punt, which was picked up by Julian Zamora and returned into the endzone in the fourth quarter.
“The defense had a great game tonight. They’ve had a lot of turnovers this year and have really been playing well,” Marques said. “They’re part of the reason we’ve done so well in this league. It’s good to see the intensity.”
While victory is sweet, both Marques and Bailey agreed that just being on the football field this season is the greatest reward.
“This is just icing on the cake,” Marques said. “Some great memories were made tonight…the thing I’m most happy about tonight is that the kids are back on the field playing and our seniors got one last chance to play at home. That was a really big deal.”
“It’s a blessing to be able to come out here and compete, especially being seniors,” Bailey said. “We couldn’t have asked for anything better. It’s a miracle.”
Hilmar is now 3-1 on the season after the win. Next week, they’ll play Golden Valley at 7 p.m. Friday in Merced.