SUTTER — The fourth-seeded Hughson Huskies earned a second consecutive trip to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 6 final with a stirring 21-14 win over top-seeded Sutter on a rain-soaked Friday night.
With the victory, Hughson (9-3) advances to take on No. 3 Bradshaw Christian (Sacramento) — a 22-21 upset winner over No. 2 Sonora — likely at Sacramento City College on either Friday or Saturday.
After winning last year's D-6 section banner, the Huskies continued on to win the CIF Division 5-AA state championship.
Hughson head coach Shaun King spent most of Friday morning in the emergency room at Turlock's Emanuel Medical Center being treated for pneumonia. Frankly, he looked like a man who got out of a hospital bed to make a three-hour bus trip to stand in the rain to watch a football game. His team didn't help him feel any better in the first half, twice being turned away on fourth down inside the 5-yard line.
Hughson led 7-0 at the break thanks to a 2-yard hook-up between receiver Malakai Sumter and quarterback Robert McDaniel, but the cushion easily could've been 21 points at the intermission.
And with Sutter getting the ball to start the second half ... it was no warm bowl of soup for the ailing King.
"That's probably the best defensive team we saw this year," said King. "And with the weather, we knew it was going to be a ground-and-pound type of game."
So did halfback Alex Villarreal, who, when he wasn't on the field, was on the bench with his right leg wrapped in a space-age-looking heating pad. He pulled his hamstring on Oct. 20 during the Trans-Valley League matchup against Hilmar, and was taking every precaution to make sure the muscle didn't tighten up on him Friday.
Villarreal knew he'd be needed late in the game as Hughson tried to run out the clock.
"I had that feeling," said Villarreal, who carried the ball 26 times for 160 yards. "The coaches told me, ‘just hold on to the ball and run it out for us.’”
The Huskies increased their lead to 14-0 when Larkin Meyer, who caught seven passes for 80 yards, found a seam around the right end and ran into the end zone from 19 yards out.
Sutter finally hit paydirt when Marcus Meras scored the first of his two touchdowns with 1:51 left to play in the third quarter.
Hughson was forced to punt for the first time on its next possession, but the Huskies' defense snatched away any momentum Sutter was building by forcing a punt.
"We knew they were a really great running team," said Huskies middle linebacker David Burns. "And in this type of weather we can't pass as much. So, we're going to run the ball; they're going to run the ball.
We both can run, so whoever's defense was better was going to win the game."
Hughson got the ball back with 8:01 to play in the contest and promptly marched 72 yards while chewing up 4:10 off the clock to make it 21-7, capping the drive on Villarreal's 3-yard burst.
Sutter would eventually score to make it 21-14, but there was just
1:43 left on the clock when the Huskies recovered the onside kick.
As in 2022, Hughson will be joined on finals weekend by fellow TVL member Escalon (11-1), a 48-28 winner over West Park (Roseville).
The Cougars, like the Huskies, are a defending section and state champion. They'll face Patterson (10-1) in the D-4 final.
Hilmar (8-4), the third TVL team vying to reach a section final, was defeated 34-14 by Casa Roble (Orangevale) in the D-5 semis.