The Hilmar Yellowjackets got off the mat more times than a heavyweight fighter in a championship bout, but in the end, Sonora was able to deliver the knockout blow, holding on for a 28-20 victory Friday, in what is becoming one of the best non-conference rivalries in the southern half of the Sac-Joaquin Section.
With the victory, Sonora improves to 2-1 for the season and snaps a three-game losing streak to Hilmar, which dips to 1-2.
Trailing 13-6 at halftime, the Yellowjackets forced the Wildcats to give up the ball on downs to start the third quarter.
Hilmar took over on its own 38 and needed just two plays to punch it in. Luis Vargas — who scored the team’s first-half TD on a 1-yard reception from quarterback Hudson Azevedo — broke free for a 27-yard gain on the first play, then finished things off one play later with a 35-yard romp.
However, when kicker McKade Jensen missed the point-after try, Sonora clung to a 13-12 lead.
“Honestly, I think we’re a second-half team,” said Vargas, a 5-11, 180-pound senior. “We go in at halftime and we fix our mistakes, and that’s something I love about this team. But sometimes you have to get it going in the first and second quarter.”
On the ensuing possession, the Wildcats faced third-and-18 from its own 29 when they caught Hilmar by surprise.
Quarterback Adam Curnow turned to his right and pitched to Noah Baker, who promptly hit a wide-open Chance Pimentel for a 71-yard scoring strike. Bryce Nicholson’s two-point conversion made it a two-score contest, 21-12, with 6:09 left in the third quarter.
“That was a gutsy call,” Yellowjackets’ head coach Frank Marques said of the halfback-option. “Our kids were playing hard, and we were just a little too aggressive on that play.”
Hilmar was forced to punt on its next possession, but the punt was a thing of beauty: a 39-yarder by Jensen that was downed at the 1.
That field position set up the ’Jackets’ next score, a safety that made it 21-14.
Hilmar took the kickoff after the safety and was flagged for holding on first down. Facing first-and-22, Azevedo found Derek Taylor for a gain of 20 to make it a manageable second-and-2. Four plays later, Azevedo and Taylor hooked up again, this time from 22 yards out, to make it 21-20 with the PAT pending.
However, Jensen missed his third extra-point attempt of the game and Sonora maintained the lead.
“It’s all in his head right now,” said Marques. “He’s swinging his hips too soon and pointing them to where the ball is going.”
Jensen thought it had more to do with tempo.
“I’m just going too quick,” said Jensen, a 5-10, 165-pound senior. “I’m just really disappointed in myself. I have to put more time and effort into it during practice.”
The momentum had clearly shifted to favor the Yellowjackets, but the hosts snatched it back three plays later when Curnow, on third-and-1, kept the ball and broke free for a 74-yard gain. Tim Blackmore’s PAT made it 28-20 with 4:06 to play.
Hilmar returned the ensuing kickoff deep into Wildcats’ territory, but a holding call nullified the long-gainer and brought the Yellowjackets back to their own 12, where they went three-and-out.
Hilmar’s defense countered with its own three-and-out, giving the ’Jackets one last possession. But Azevedo’s screen pass on first down was sniffed out and picked off by 6-foot-5, 260-pound lineman Roger Alderman, who committed before the game to play collegiately at Utah.
Sonora won the first four games in this meeting, while Hilmar has won the last three in a series that has been as entertaining as it has been competitive. Five of their eight matchups since 2014 have finished within eight points.
Friday’s game marked the first of four consecutive games at Dunlavy Field for the Wildcats and the first of three on the road for the Yellowjackets, who travel to Salinas next Saturday for a game against Central Coast parochial powerhouse Palma.