For East Nicolaus, it was a nightmare first quarter. For Hilmar, it was the quick start that had been missing in its last two playoff games.
Before Spartans fans had a chance to settle into their seats after a two-hour car drive, East Nicolaus had fumbled the ball four times in the first four minutes.
Hilmar (12-2) recovered three of the fumbles, turning them into three quick touchdowns as the Yellowjackets cruised to a 48-14 win in the Northern California 6-AA championship at Dave Honey Stadium on the campus of Atwater High.
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It was the first loss of the year for the Spartans (13-1). East Nicolaus coach Travis Barker didn’t blame nerves or the long trip for the miscues.
“There’s no excuses for it,” said Barker, whose team lost its third consecutive Northern California championship game. “It is what it is. It’s not typical of us, but playing a great team like Hilmar, we knew we had to come out and be perfect and we just weren’t.”
The Yellowjackets will host Central Section champion Stathmore (13-1) in the CIF 6-AA state championship game at Atwater High on Saturday at 6 p.m. The game is a rematch of a NorCal play-in game last year won by Strathmore 53-52 in double overtime.
“It was such a good game,” said Hilmar coach Frank Marques. “It was a battle last year. They are a great team with great tradition. We’re looking forward to the rematch. and some redemption.”
After being shut out in the first quarter against Escalon and Ripon Christian the last two weeks, the Yellowjackets scored 27 first-quarter points against the Spartans.
It was the most points East Nicolaus had given up all season.
The Spartans fumbled on the first play from scrimmage on a bumbled handoff and Hilmar’s David Moreno pounced on the ball to give the Yellowjackets the ball at East Nicolaus’ 15-yard line.
Hilmar needed only one play to score as quarterback Treven Crowley passed the ball to Justin Rentfro on the perimeter for a 15-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead just 11 seconds into the game.
It was one of five touchdown passes for Crowley, who hadn’t thrown for more than two touchdowns in a game this season.
“Our coach has been telling us we need to start better in the first quarter and it finally happened tonight,” said Crowley, who completed 14 of 23 passes for 156 yards. “Without that first quarter it would have been a much closer game.”
The Spartans picked up three first downs on their second drive, but quarterback Gavin McCauliff fumbled when he tried to pull a handoff back on a read-option play. Hilmar’s Brennan Mason recovered the ball at the Yellowjackets’ 27-yard line.
Hilmar used five plays to march 73 yards as Bryan Millan scored on a 32-yard run to extend the lead to 14-0.
East Nicolaus coughed up another fumble two plays later as Moreno recorded his second recovery. Crowley hit Noah Barcelos on a 15-yard touchdown pass on the next play for a 20-0 lead with 8:09 left in the first quarter.
Millan hauled in a 52-yard touchdown pass from Crowley at the end of the quarter to give the Yellowjackets a 27-0 lead.
“They are a good football team, but they just self-destructed,” Marques said. “We got lucky. I think we scored on all four turnovers in that first half.”
The only bad news for Hilmar was Millan was injured on the long touchdown and didn’t return. Marques said they’ll have to wait and see about Millan’s availability for next week
While Crowley had success through the air, Hilmar also racked up yards on the ground as Isaac Sharp finished with 172 yards on 20 carries. Rentfro added 117 yards on 11 carries.
Sharp was wearing No. 4 in honor of teammate Cole Cozine, who was injured last week against Ripon Christian. Sharp made a similar gesture last year when his jersey was ripped. He wore No. 24 in honor of injured teammate Travis Maynard.
“This year my jersey wasn’t torn,” Sharp said. “I wanted to represent Cole because he broke his ankle last week. It’s cool that I get a chance to play for him.”
Meanwhile, the Hilmar defense made it a long night for the Spartans. The Yellowjackets held an offense that averages 329 rushing yards per game to just 162 yards on the ground. The Spartans had five turnovers.
Hilmar had a 34-0 lead before McAuliff connected with J.T. Stinson on a 10-yard touchdown pass for the Spartans’ first score that cut the lead to 34-8 with 4:16 left in the third quarter.
Takeshi Faupula added a late touchdown for East Nicolaus as the game finished with a running clock.
“They’re just better than us,” Barker said. “That’s all there is to it. We’re a 300-kid school that plays in a really small division, and we beat teams our size. We can’t come up and compete at this level. It happens to us every year. We get McClymonds twice in a row and then we get Hilmar.”