HILMAR — After watching his team play a near-perfect first half, Hilmar's Frank Marques faced one of the most difficult tasks any football coach can face.
He had to figure out how to successfully land a blowout victory against a quality team without rubbing it in, while making sure his team didn't completely lose momentum.
The mission eventually was accomplished, as the YellowJackets rode a 24-point halftime lead to a 33-21 victory over Ripon, but it wasn't without a few anxious moments for the home crowd.
"I went off my game plan because I wanted to protect the lead, which was a mistake on my part," Marques said. "We probably should have kept going at them."
On the other hand, make no mistake about this: Hilmar announced itself not only as the better team on Friday night, but as a team to be reckoned with in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 4 playoffs.
The YellowJackets are the only 8-0 team in the section in any division, and with victories over solid teams in Escalon and Hughson should get a top-2 seed in the postseason. They're 4-0 in the Trans-Valley League.
Ripon (7-1, 3-1) saw its 21-game regular-season win streak snapped but will enjoy a light schedule until the playoffs begin. Only games against Riverbank and Orestimba stand between the Indians and a 9-1 regular season that will come with no worse than a second-place TVL finish.
"I knew coming in that this would be the best team we've played this year, and vice versa," said Ripon coach Chris Johnson. "Hopefully we get to see them again."
If there is a postseason rematch, the Indians will have to make major adjustments on defense because they had no luck stopping the aerial game of Hilmar and quarterback Jonathan O'Brien.
The junior, coming off a four-for-four passing game with four touchdowns a week ago, connected on 10 of 14 first-half passes for 211 yards and scores of 13 and 60 yards to Tyler Robinson. He also ran a red zone read-option to perfection, scoring rushing touchdowns of 13 and 12 yards.
"It was the read option and the same exact play except one went to the left and one to the right," O'Brien said. "I read the defensive end and the running back did a great job of carrying out the fake while the linemen were taking out the backers."
His 60-yard pass to Robinson was a quick wide receiver screen, and was part of a first half in which his favorite target grabbed five passes for 138 yards.
In all, the 'Jackets outgained Ripon 274-70 in the opening 24 minutes.
Hilmar's lone mistake was a fumbled punt that the Indians recovered at the 22 and turned into a 10-yard scoring run by Ryan Fugit with 1:13 left in the half.
But all that did was set the stage for more Hilmar magic, as O'Brien completed three straight passes, including a 23-yard strike to Robinson with four seconds left, to set up a 42-yard field goal by Devon Medeiros that pushed the margin to 31-7.
"That was probably the best first-half of football we've played," Marques said. But when asked if it was the best first half ever for one of his Hilmar teams, he came very close to agreeing on the spot.
"We could go a lot of years back before finding a better half of football against a quality opponent like Ripon," he said.
The Indians' comeback never really came close to threatening the 'Jackets' victory, but it was a spirited rally for a team that could have cashed it in.
"They're a great football team," Johnson said. "They punched us in the face early and in that first half we were a little punch drunk.
"Frank did pull off, and it's tough to let up. We did get a little beat up, but still I have to give my kids some credit. They aren't going to quit. We'll play until the bitter end."
And for both these teams, the end won't come until the postseason.