Derek Taylor called it the happiest moment in his life.
The Hilmar High football star made two key plays down the stretch, catching the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter and then blocking a potential game-winning field goal moments later to seal the Yellowjackets’ 21-20 win over Escalon (3-3 overall, 0-2 Trans-Valley League) on Friday night between longtime rivals at McSweeney Stadium.
“There’s no better feeling,” Taylor said. “I haven’t beaten Escalon in a varsity game ever.”
The Yellowjackets (4-3, 3-0 TVL) snapped a four-game losing streak to the Cougars, tying the all-time series at 34-34-1 between the two schools.
Friday night’s game will go down as another classic as Hilmar had to turn to its third-string quarterback to lead the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
Sophomore quarterback Caden Bailey was playing phenomenal for the Yellowjackets, rushing for 138 yards on 14 carries, including a 6-yard touchdown run.
However, Bailey was injured during a 22-yard run when his helmet was slammed down hard to the ground while being tackled with 11 minutes and 23 seconds left in the game.
Hilmar turned to 5-foot-10, 155-pound senior Bradley Morris at quarterback, who had only thrown one pass all season.
“I was nervous a little bit,” Morris said. “It was a big situation against a rival and I knew I could trust my teammates.”
Morris took over on the drive and the Yellowjackets moved the ball inside the Escalon 10-yard line on three running plays. Hilmar running back Luis Vargas (140 rushing yards and a touchdown) set up the Yellowjackets in scoring position with a 25-yard run.
Facing third-and-goal from the 9-yard line, Morris fired a pass to Taylor on a slant for a touchdown that gave Hilmar a 21-20 lead with 9:05 left in the game.
“He’s got ice in his veins,” said Hilmar coach Frank Marques. “That throw was a dart. We’re down to our third-string quarterback and he just drills it. I’m really proud of him.”
Miller knew where he was going with the ball before the snap.
“I looked over to (Taylor’s) side and I see the corner is way off,” Miller said. “It was destiny. He’s way off and nobody is going to be able to catch him.”
Escalon star Owen Nash drew the coverage on Taylor and may have been guarding against a fade in the corner of the end zone.
“Owen Nash is an amazing player,” Taylor said. “He was playing off coverage. Bradley just had faith in me and I caught the ball.”
Nash had torched the Yellowjackets’ defense all night, catching eight passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns.
Nash caught a big 25-yard reception to move the Cougars within scoring distance late in the game.
However, Escalon’s drive stalled at the Hilmar 22-yard line and Escalon opted for a 38-yard field goal to try to take the lead with less than 2 minutes left.
Cougars kicker Vicente Gonzalez’s kick never had a chance as the Yellowjackets crashed up the middle with the 6-foot-5 Taylor blocking the kick.
“We just did what we had to do to make it happen,” Taylor said. “I lined up thinking I could make that play and I did.”
The Yellowjackets were able to pick up a first down and run out the clock.
“We got lucky tonight,” Marques said. “Any time you get a win against Escalon you have to have a little luck and good fortune. Our kids just battled. I’m really proud of them because they battled the whole night.”
Hilmar has rebounded from a 1-3 start to the season and with three consecutive wins has set up a TVL championship game in two weeks at Hughson. The Yellowjackets have a bye next week.