HILMAR — The Hilmar High offense showed signs of life with its opening possession of the second half, but still hadn’t finished a drive against a stout Center defense.
The Cougars had just stolen the game’s momentum with a 99-yard kickoff return for a score late in the third quarter and the Yellowjackets needed an answer. Head coach Frank Marquez turned to the pass-catch combination of quarterback Jonathan O’Brien and wide out Tyler Robinson.
O’brien found his favorite target three times for 35 yards on the game’s decisive drive, converting two big third downs and then connecting for a perfect 12-yard strike in the right corner of the end zone. Hilmar never trailed again, securing its place in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4 title game for the second time in three years with a gutty 19-15 victory at McSweeney Field.
The Yellowjackets (13-0) will take on old Western Athletic Conference foe and defending small-school state champ Central Catholic, which defeated Ripon 38-7 in the other semifinal, in the championship game at Lincoln High School in Stockton on Dec. 7 at 1 p.m.
“Coach sees everything from the sideline,” said Robinson, who finished with seven catches for 88 yards and the touchdown. “He made the calls that put Jonathan in a place to make the throw and me in a place to make some catches.
“That drive was for all the nuggets. We had to come away with a score, especially right after they took back the lead.
“Jonathan is a special kid. All you need is a little space and he’ll make the throw. He put it in the perfect spot.”
What started out as a defensive battle through the first 23 minutes of the opening half turned into a contest of one big momentum swing after another.
Center quarterback Tyrel Anderson broke free for a 9-yard touchdown run, his only positive run of the opening half, to give the Cougars (9-4) an 8-3 lead with 27 seconds left in the half.
Center made the mistake of squibbing the ensuing kickoff, handing Hilmar the ball at its own 41-yard line with 21 seconds left and two timeouts. The Yellowjackets marched to the Center 40 and Devon Mederios drained a school-record 56-yard field goal as time expired. Mederios’ second field goal of the opening half trimmed the lead to 8-6 at intermission.
After Hilmar’s offense produced just 70 total yards on 30 plays in the opening half, if felt like the defense was going to need to provide a spark. Breck Smith provided just that with 2:09 left in the third quarter.
Defensive end Bernardo Duran got pressure on Anderson, drilling him in the back as he went to throw. That forced Anderson’s pass to float and an opportunistic Smith intercepted it and returned it 60 yards for a go-ahead touchdown.
“I just dropped back into coverage and saw the ball get tipped,” Smith said. “Fortunately, I was able to jump just high enough to get it. I knew there was nobody that was going to stop me after that.”
Smith’s play sent the capacity home crowd into a frenzy, but Anderson quickly took the wind right out of them.
Hilmar contained the play maker admirably in the run game (11 carries for five yards), but just like he did in Center’s quarterfinal victory, Anderson answered with a kickoff return for a score. His 99-yard return put the Cougars right back on top 15-12.
The Yellowjackets had a response of their own, marching 56 yards for the Robinson TD catch and a 19-15 lead.
The Hilmar defense did the rest, not allowing Center past it own 37-yard line in its final three possessions.