ESCALON -- Mark Loureiro calls it one of the toughest challenges he's faced in his 23 years of coaching.
And so grows the legend of national recruit Eddie Vanderdoes and his state-ranked Placer High Hillmen.
No. 8 Escalon travels to Auburn on Friday to face the top seed in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4 playoffs, a team that features three Division I signees and already owns a victory over Central Catholic the No. 6-ranked team.
The quarterfinal kicks off at 7 p.m., and the Cougars, just two years removed from a CIF state championship, are the decided underdogs.
With a mountain to climb.
In the rain.
"In my 23 years doing this, this Placer team ranks with the great Central teams, the Hilmar teams, the Hughson teams that I've gone against in the past. Some of the great teams in the history of those schools," Loureiro said.
"Placer will tell you this is the best team they've had, too. This is an unbelievable challenge for our program. We know we're in deep."
Still, Loureiro likes his position and given the level of energy he's witnessed on the practice field, so do his players.
The Cougars are no stranger to the "big game," having won eight section banners in 13 appearances and a state title in 2010.
Those credentials aren't lost on the Cougars, many of whom grew up in the shadows of those section championship teams.
"It's nothing new. We don't get all worked up," senior fullback Nathan Chunn said. "Just stay calm and play Cougar football."
So don't confuse respect for a lack of confidence. Escalon (9-2) broke practice Monday evening with three simple words: "Shock the world!"
"There's no soft side to the bracket, so let's go and find out how good Placer is first-hand," Loureiro said. "We'll be loading up the slingshot, because David's going after Goliath."
The Cougars rumble into this matchup of old-world, Wing-T football teams with all pistons firing.
Chunn chewed up the center of Engel Field last week, racking up 258 yards and five touchdowns in a 44-14 blitz of Calaveras.
"Unbelievable," gushed Loureiro. "Nathan has done a great job. He understands the offense and trusts the offensive line. He's got great vision and sets up his blocks really well.
"There is no question, we need a big game out of him. It's going to be our strength versus their strength. We like to run the ball, and run defense is what they do best."
Chunn has rushed for 1,858 yards on 275 carries, and his 6.8 yards-per-carry average is a testament to the wide bodies on the line in front of him: tackles Alan Gonzalez and Brent Montgomery, guards Tyson Pomicpic and Troy Doggett, center Joey Gutierrez, and tight ends Alex Loureiro and Andrew Zavala.
"We have to be able to move the chains, take time off the clock, shorten the game as much as possible and hope for a little bit of weather. It's going to take just a little bit of everything," Loureiro added.
"Even if we don't score on every drive, we have to move the ball and eat up some clock."
Matching Placer's Vanderdoes
A formidable task awaits.
He stands 6 feet, 4 inches, and tips the scales at 305 pounds, and about the only thing more daunting than Eddie Vanderdoes' physique is his mountain of recruiting letters.
The defensive end has committed to USC, and his YouTube highlights are worth every scholarship dollar invested.
During one sequence at a Nike camp in Oregon, Vanderdoes (nine sacks) worked his way down the line, spinning, tossing and blowing by the best young linemen in the nation.
At one point, Vanderdoes completely turned around the center, and then speared him through the tackling dummy.
"They've got big names," Chunn said, "but we're going to show them the small-school, no-namers can take on anyone."
Placer also features Stone Sander (51 tackles, six sacks), who has committed to Sacramento State, and a ball-hawking defense. Hilmar turned the ball over six times one interception, five fumbles in a 59-3 loss to the Hillmen last week.
"We're going to have to play perfect. We can't afford any turnovers, and still that might not be enough," Loureiro said. "I will say this about the kids: We're playing well right now.
"Everyone asks, 'What else does your program need to accomplish?' This is a big thing, playing the No. 1 team in the (section) at their place."
James Burns is the Regional Sports Content Editor of The Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2324.