The Hilmar Yellowjackets varsity football team faced off against the Ripon Indians on Friday night, a game that had major Trans Valley League title and playoff implications, as the winner of the matchup would be guaranteed a tie atop the TVL standings.
With high stakes on the line, the Yellowjackets went right to work in front of their home crowd. On the very first drive of the game, running back Luis Vargas took over. On the second play from scrimmage and his first rushing attempt of the night, Vargas broke loose for a 55-yard rush to set his team up at the Ripon six-yard line. The very next play, Vargas was fed the ball once more, punching the touchdown from six yard out and giving his squad the early 7-0 lead.
On Hilmar’s third drive of the first quarter, the Yellowjackets would strike again, this time with quarterback Caden Bailey using his blazing speed to scramble for a six-yard touchdown and extend the lead to 14-0.
With the Hilmar home crowd on their feet, the Indians were determined to answer back and keep the game from getting out of hand, which is exactly what they did. Starting at midfield for the next drive after a short kickoff, Ripon running back Anden Ries broke loose for a 20-yard touchdown and make it a 14-7 ballgame. The score would stand as the two teams headed to the locker rooms for halftime.
The Indians came out to receive the second half kickoff motivated to even the score, but they wouldn’t have to do much themselves as the Hilmar defense surrendered 30 free yards after a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. With the ball eventually spotted at the 5-yard line, Ripon quarterback Ty Herrin found running back Adam Johnston in the back corner of the endzone for a touchdown and tying the score at 14 points apiece.
Hilmar head coach Frank Marques gave his perspective on the costly penalties after the game.
“We’re not that kind of team, so I’d like to think it was a fluke,” Marques said. “We just had to calm everybody back down again and focus on what we had to do. We were getting too worried about referees’ calls and not on the game.”
Luckily for Marques, his team was able to control emotions moving forward, with one of the players leading the charge being Bailey. On the ensuing drive, Bailey scrambled five teams, making plays when his team needed them the most, and capping things off with another 6-yard rushing touchdown to make it 21-14.
Once again, the Indians came out on offense motivated to get a touchdown back. The visiting team drove into Hilmar territory, but ultimately turned the ball over on downs after a major defensive stand by the Yellowjackets. Hilmar rode that momentum into their next drive, which was completed by a 26-yard rushing touchdown by Bailey to make it 27-14 after a missed extra point.
Desperate to keep up with the Yellowjackets, the Indians began turning to the passing game. The pass-heavy adjustment would soon sting the Indians as Hilmar cornerback Luke Cox came up with a timely interception to halt the Ripon rally. Now in excellent field position, Hilmar looked for the nail in the coffin. They would hammer it home with a 29-yard touchdown rush by running back Jax Branco, making it a 34-14 game.
Marques had heavy praise the playmaking ability of Bailey and Branco after the game.
“[Bailey] is a really special kid. He’s got ice in his veins and he never gets frustrated. He made some really big plays tonight so I was real excited for him,” Marques said. “But I think the unsung hero tonight was Jax Branco. He had a great game and had some great first downs… Branco played lights out.”
The 34-14 score would stand for the remainder of the game after a late Ripon comeback attempt was stifled by another Cox interception.
Marques later reflected on the hard-fought battle against the league rival in Ripon.
“The score wasn’t really indicative of how the game was… This game was in the balance until the fourth quarter,” he said. “I have a ton of respect for that program (Ripon), they’re very well coached. It’s the TVL. Every time you play a game in this league, it’s a battle. And tonight was a battle.”
While Bailey was once again the star in Hilmar’s win in only his second start at varsity since taking over for the injured Hudson Azevedo, he gave much of the credit to his teammates.
“It was great teamwork. Linemen were working their butts off, just everybody working their butts off… The first couple weeks [of the season] were tough with the quarterback situation, but we started gelling really quick. I’m glad everybody’s got faith in me,” he said.
The Yellowjackets now find themselves in first place tie atop the TVL alongside Hughson High. Bailey will look to keep his team in that position when they face off against league rival Escalon next week.
“Winning this game really put us in a good spot for TVL,” Bailey said, with plenty of excitement in his voice. “Next week we have Escalon, and that’s a must win. They’re a tough opponent. Let’s just go against them and after just go get that TVL [title].”
Marques shared those same emotions but kept his word much shorter.
“I love the TVL,” he said with a large grin.
Next week’s matchup will take also take place in Hilmar, with another large, loud and proud crowd expected.