Hilmar struck first - plating a run in the top of the third inning - but Trans-Valley League rival and defending state champion Escalon was up to the task, scoring two runs in the fourth inning and hanging on for the win.
The 2-1 victory by Escalon on Monday gave the Cougars the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V crown, taking home the blue banner for the third straight year. They likely will also be named state champions for the second consecutive time in a couple of weeks.
Despite the loss, head coach Justin Steelman was proud of his Hilmar team and couldn't fault the desire they brought to the diamond at Lodi's Tony Zupo Field.
"There's a lot of other teams that are sitting at home," Steelman said, noting how difficult it is to advance through the playoffs and make it to the title game. "We had to battle in the playoffs. They played their hearts out."
The two teams had met previously in league play, Escalon winning both but each coming with some controversy, including the game that clinched the TVL title for the Cougars. Hilmar thought they had rallied to score the tying run but it was erased on an interference call as the runner heading to second tried to break up the double play. Escalon celebrated the league title in Hilmar, and the Yellowjackets wanted to take the division title away from Escalon. They had already done that once this year, snatching the Section football crown from the Cougars.
From Escalon's perspective, that wasn't going to happen again.
Cougar ace Matt Valencia took the hill and fashioned a three-hitter, striking out nine.
Hilmar used a pair of pitchers, starting out with senior Matt Tyler on the mound. He went four innings and allowed the two runs on four hits. He struck out four as well and gave way in the fifth to sophomore Lucas Vaughn, who was masterful in relief, setting down all six batters he faced, including three strikeouts and three fly balls to centerfield.
In the Hilmar third, with one out, designated hitter Roman Ramirez singled and went to second on an errant throw. He moved up to third on a passed ball and scampered home on another passed ball, giving the Yellowjackets a 1-0 lead.
Escalon got their two runs in the fourth on two hit batters, a single on a hit and run, a passed ball and an RBI single.
Hilmar threatened a couple other times, with a pinch runner picked off in the fifth inning, a 3-4-2 double play turned by the Cougars to end the sixth and a runner stranded on second after getting there via a balk in the seventh.
Escalon's Patrick Mulry said the Yellowjackets gave the Cougars all they could handle.
"Usually we don't press but today I kind of did," Mulry said. "Their pitchers were dealing and they played a really great game today."
Collecting the Hilmar hits were Chris Silva, Roman Ramirez and Matt Tyler.