Do the following three things in postseason prep football and a victory is all but assured: get off to a fast start, win the turnover battle and have your marquee athletes rise to the occasion by making big plays.
Friday night at Wilson Stadium, the host Escondido Cougars adhered to that formula with exacting precision and as a result, coach Jud Bordman’s crew secured an impressive 31-7 victory over intracity foe Classical Academy in first-round action of the San Diego Section CIF Division IV playoffs.
Ignited by the remarkable all-around play of wideout/defensive back Tajae Brooks and the timely rushing/passing of quarterback Robbie Ramos, the Cougs jumped out to a sizable 21-0 lead with less than 16 minutes having been played and basically never looked back.
The junior Brooks was lights out on both sides of the ball, latching onto five receptions (130 yards) in addition to picking off a pair of passes. As for Ramos, he put his educated arm and legs to productive use (200 total yards) with a long-distance touchdown toss and a couple of scoring runs.
With the win, Esco delivered its first playoff win in ten years, upped its overall mark to 6-5 and earned the right to travel southeast some 33 miles to take on top-seeded Santana (9-1) in quarterfinal action tomorrow night. “The guys did a very good job of being ready for this game,” said Bordman in the aftermath of the victory. “This win should really help us with our confidence moving forward.”
Conversely, it was a disappointing outing for the vanquished Caimans (5-6) who simply couldn’t sustain much or generate nearly enough traction. Almost from the start, Classical was fighting an uphill battle that proved to be much too difficult to overcome.
The tone for the contest was emphatically set on the initial series when Brooks got a great read on a pass by Classical signal caller James Duncan, closed rapidly on the throw, neatly intercepted it and then breezed into the end zone for what looked to be a lengthy pick-six. But despite the fact that the tally was wiped out by a holding penalty, the Cougars maintained possession and soon after sent another signal that they were primed to take care of business.
Having completed a clutch 4th down toss to Brooks that kept the drive alive, it wasn’t long before Ramos got his squad on the board. Dropping back, the junior QB spied running room to his right and took off, getting outside defensive containment and hoofing it down the right sideline for 19-yard tote that broke the ice at the 5:00 mark of the first quarter.
But Ramos was just clearing his throat as more Cougar dramatics were imminent. On Esco’s very next possession, the strong-armed youngster unloaded a picturesque arching spiral that caught the speedy Brooks in perfect stride. Having already whizzed past the Caiman secondary, Brooks had no one to beat as he easily dashed to pay dirt with a 68-yard scoring strike. The first quarter still had almost three minutes remaining but already Brooks and Ramos had inflicted such extensive damage that Classical would never recover.
After the Coug defense forced a turnover on downs at the Classical 46-yard line, matters got even more problematic for the visitors in the second stanza. Thanks in large part to a nifty 22-yard run by Ramos and a late-hit penalty against the Caimans, Esco was again knocking at the door. From the 9, running back Abraham Perez took a handoff, sped right, accelerated through a hole and crashed into the end zone with a tally that helped the Cougars extend their margin to a hefty 21-0.
But just when it appeared as if the Caimans might go completely under, they showed some real mettle by answering back with an immediate response.
Taking over near midfield, Classical quickly moved down the field on the efforts of the gritty Luke Mizel; who picked up valuable yardage with a key catch followed by a productive run. When Mizel was body slammed to the turf at the end of the aforementioned tote, a personal foul infraction was called and suddenly the Caimans were inside the 20. One play later, Duncan – tall in stature and the possessor of a bona fide arm – patiently rolled out to his right before launching a honey of a touch pass to the dangerous Maximus Brown, who was all by his lonesome deep in the end zone. This 14-yard scoring connection got the Caimans off the snide and kept them within hailing distance.
Had the Classical defense been able to produce a stop at this juncture, then perhaps the tide might have swung even more in their direction but unfortunately for coach Tim Sherlock’s squad, no such stand was forthcoming. And once more it was the tandem of Ramos and Brooks that tormented the Caimans.
Twice they collaborated on deep outs, the second of which saw the revved-up Brooks activate the afterburners, speed down the far sideline and make a deft cut before he was hauled down after a 26-yard advance. From there, Ramos eventually did the honors when he hunkered down behind the right side of his line and burrowed in with a 2-yard TD plunge that padded the Esco advantage to 28-7.
And yet, the Caimans continued to fight on, driving down to Esco’s 10 on the ensuing series. A terrific stretching grab by Mizel that resulted in a 30-yard gain had been the pivotal play on this advance. But alas, when Duncan was stopped short on a fourth-down keeper that ensured the fact that Classical’s deficit going into intermission would remain at three touchdowns.
The Caimans last realistic chance to stage a rally took place early in the third quarter after defensive back Joshua Vetlesen did a splendid job of disguising himself, picking off a Ramos throw and returning the interception down to the Cougar 30.
But three plays later, Duncan gave it right back when while on the run, he forced an ill-advised pass down the field that the ubiquitous Brooks was in ideal position to pilfer. Even though an inordinate amount of time was still on the board, Brooks’s theft basically removed all doubt about the eventual outcome.
It was then left to kicker Josue Flores to provide the capper when he punched through a 29-yard field goal that ran the final count to 31-7.
Understandably, Bordman was quick to point to Brooks and Ramos as the catalysts that spearheaded the Esco triumph. “Tajae was huge for us,” praised his coach. “He was getting it done all over the field. And he definitely got us started with that first interception.”
And when it came to Ramos, Bordman was no less effusive. “Robbie did a great job of managing the offense, particularly in the first half,” said Bordman. “He was making clutch plays either with his arm or when he was running hard.”
But Bordman was also intent on mentioning the standout job that was authored by his charges down in the trenches. The O-linemen did themselves proud with the manner in which they protected Ramos and opened up creases that the darting Dominic Fabela (83 yards) and Perez (42 yards) effectively exploited. The active D-line had a most productive night as well—given the pressure that it exerted on Duncan and its overall containment of the Caiman rushing attack.
So now, it’s on to face a powerful Santana team that is on a roll, with a berth in the Division IV semifinals at stake. But Bordman expresses no trepidation about what awaits his team and instead sees the upcoming matchup with the Sultans as a tremendous opportunity. “Hey, they’re a great opponent and going on the road makes it even more of a challenge,” he said. “But I know we can compete and with this playoff win, we’ve got some real momentum behind us. I’m excited for our team to get this chance to show what we can do.”
In victory, the Cougars showed the Caimans plenty. If they can do the same versus Santana and once more deliver on the three tenets mentioned above, their postseason dreams could very well continue to flourish.