It was a tale of two halves Saturday afternoon when the Hilmar Yellowjackets and Central Catholic Raiders met on the field of Lincoln High in Stockton for the Division IV Sac-Joaquin Section championship game.
Hilmar entered the matchup with an undefeated record, a sense of destiny, and the full support of its small town. CC entered with a 12-1 record, imposing size, and an aura of confidence that comes with a tradition of winning.
But experienced trumped all—in the first half at least— as the defending State champion Raiders took advantage of ‘Jacket miscues and scored 24 unanswered points. Hilmar turned it around in the second half, keeping CC off the scoreboard and finding some offensive production of its own, but it wasn’t enough to prevent the 24-10 final and keep the Raiders from their 17th section championship in school history.
“I think there was a lot of nerves. A lot of these kids, it was the first time in a big show like this and I think what happened is we got caught up with the nerves,” Hilmar head coach Frank Marques said. “We made some mistakes that were uncharacteristic of us and you can’t do that with a team like this.”
In the week leading up to the title game the question was whether or not the ‘Jackets’ defense could contain the Raiders’ offense as Hilmar had allowed only 128 points from its opponents through the season while CC had scored 1,027 points. It was size versus speed in the trenches, and while Hilmar had seen CC in action on film, facing the Raiders in person was a different story all together.
“Their size was incredible. It was like playing a junior college team,” Marques said.
“This was the biggest offensive line we’ve faced all year. They've got really great size, they’re athletic, and all around a great offensive line,” Bernardo Duran said. “It was a struggle for us, it was a tough game.”
Hilmar’s defense found success on the first two drives, forcing a four and out before Chris Souza recovered a Matt Ringer fumble, but were beaten to the punch on each first half drive thereafter. Offensive guards Travis Gist and Ivan Swalve neutralized Hilmar’s Davis Bisby while tackles Spencer Stark and Jonah Friedrich took care of linebackers Joseph Bello and Brek Smith.
With open running lanes, CC’s star running back Ringer racked up 178 first half yards—more than half of the Raiders' 281 total first half yards—and scored twice on runs of 20 and 41 yards. The Raiders also found success through the air, however, as they notched their first score on a 30 yard pass from Hunter Petlansky to Jared Rice.
After a 38 yard field goal by Devon Medeiros sailed through the uprights with 20 seconds left in the second quarter, Hilmar entered the half down 24-3.
“We came out flat and they were just tearing our defense apart,” Britton Smith said.
But Hilmar’s defense reversed its fortune in the second half and returned to championship form as the squad limited Ringer to only 65 yards through the third and fourth quarters. Linebacker Smith was particularly energized as he consistently swarmed to the ball while Bisby, Souza, Duran, and company also chipped in. CC gained less than 100 total yards in the second half.
“We were making calls and they figured out our calls, so we had to make adjustments. Once made those adjustments we started playing a lot better,” Bisby said of the defenses’ second half turnaround.
“We knew it wasn’t over. We came out and played our hearts out. If we played like we did in the second half I think it would have been a lot closer,” Souza said.
Hilmar’s offense also joined in on the turnaround as it notched completions on quick outs to Tyler Robinson and flat passes to Bailey Gomes to gain yardage.
“We were able to mix things up and get a faster tempo going. We weren’t’ doing that earlier in the first half, we were just trying to struggle to get something going. But when we finally did we were able to move the ball,” Marques said.
The increased tempo led to a ten yard touchdown scramble from quarterback Jonathan O’Brien to end a 90 yard drive and make it 25-10 at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
“The first half we kind of played really tight, we weren’t playing our style of football and we were making a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes. But in the second half, our passing game was clicking, we were able to move the ball and had some great drives,” O’Brien said.
“I started to think, you know what, we can do this—we can. We had it in us all along and we started to click. Jon O started getting time in the pocket, started finding gaps in the defense, and we started making plays,” Robinson said.
The ‘Jackets’ offensive success continued on its next drive as they drove the ball down to CC’s three yard line, but an incomplete pass, a pair of one yard runs, and slant broken up by Raiders’ Nic Navarro kept Hilmar off the scoreboard.
“We should have got in in when we were down here, and it probably would have been a different game,” Marques said.
“You got to give credit where it’s due. Their secondary sugared a lot, cut off a lot of routes that coach would call or that I’d call, so it was an all-around pretty good game by them,” Robinson said.
Hilmar forced the punt on the ensuing drive but an ill-fated bounce hit Giovanni Salcedo for the ‘Jackets’ second lost turnover of the game. Still, Hilmar wasn’t out of the game as a second Ringer fumble was recovered by Britton Smith near mid-field.
Unfortunately for Hilmar, Trent Orosco fumbled the ball six plays later on what would have been a significant pass and catch, ending Hilmar’s hunt for its seventh section title.
“I thought we were going to win, but we had a couple tough breaks, tough spots, close calls, and we couldn’t’ pull it out,” Bello said. “They’re just huge. They’re enormous and they’re tough and they played hard.”
“I’m not going to put it down to size or anything like that. We just came out not as good as we could and I think that if we had played like we did in the second half it would have been a much different outcome,” Bisby said.
Despite the loss, Hilmar ended its season as one of the most successful teams in school history after setting the record for single-season wins while also sweeping rival Escalon High for the first time.
“I’m most proud of my team, honestly. I mean we won 13 games, we had to be doing something right. We did what other people never thought that we could and we did what everyone else thought wasn’t possible,” Robinson said.
“It’s something that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life. It’s a feeling that I can’t explain. It’s amazing to be here and to be a part of this and to see the community come out here and support us as much as they did,” Duran said.
“I know they (CC) had a lot of talent, but I’d take my boys over theirs anytime of the week and I’d go to battle with them again,” Marques said. “I’m so proud of these kids. This is an awesome group of young men. There’s so many positive things this year that we got to be proud of. We got to put this game behind us and really focus on all the great things we had this year, and that was a great season.”