Modesto Christian High football coach Mike Parsons believes the Trans-Valley League is the best small-school conference in the state.
It’s a fair assessment when you consider the evidence: Parson has coached in two sections, and the TVL is hope two former state champions and the Sac-Joaquin Section’s all-time winningest coach.
At the top of that mountain is Mark Loureiro, the backbone of the Escalon High football program for nearly three decades.
“When you talk about Mark Loureiro and his father (Bob Loureiro) and the years they’ve put into that place … what they do offensively and defensively, it’s just special,” Parsons said. “You have to start with Escalon, but it’s a great league. There isn’t a better Division V league in the state.”
Fittingly, the former state champions meet on Friday for a game of seismic proportion. The TVL-leading Crusaders travel to Escalon, where desperation and urgency hide in the tall grass of Engel Field.
At 4-4, the Cougars (2-1) must win their final two games to assure themselves a playoff berth in Loureiro’s 29th and final season. He announced his retirement over the summer, and confirmed it again following a 28-14 victory over Hilmar on Oct. 6.
Escalon has missed the playoffs the last two years after making 17 straight appearances.
The Cougars could qualify with five wins, but historically, six has been the magic number. The TVL is guaranteed only two playoff berths.
The push begins Friday against the Crusaders (4-4, 3-0), the Trans-Valley’s only unbeaten team.
“That place is going to be rocking,” Parsons said. “Escalon is a great team, and that community loves their football. It’s going to be packed. We’ve had some outstanding games in the past. It should be fun.”
Modesto Christian seeks its second title in four seasons. The Crusaders can clinch at least a share with a win Friday, but Parsons insists that hasn’t been the focus in practice or a talking point in the locker room.
“I don’t think we’ve said the word ‘share.’ Even when we were 1-4, we knew all of our goals – the TVL title and the playoffs – were still ahead of us,” Parsons said. “Right now, we want to beat Escalon. They don’t like us and we don’t like them, and it’s always a great game. Do they realize (clinching a share of the title) is a part of that? I’m sure they do, but it hasn’t been our battle cry this week.”
Escalon owns a 7-5 advantage in the series, but has lost two of the last three games.
The Cougars have been named the favorite by CalPreps.com, but Modesto Christian is the hotter of the two teams. Since limping to a 1-4 start, the Crusaders have won three straight.
The streak has coincided with a change in quarterback and a return to the Shotgun Wing-T. It also helps that senior leader Paul Puaauli, a tone-setting running back and middle linebacker, is completely healthy again.
Junior Hayden Sauser was inserted at quarterback following a 42-7 loss to Calaveras. Senior Rory Hanson moved to wide receiver, where his long 6-foot-5 frame has made him an easy outlet. Hanson has 262 yards and three touchdowns on a team-high 16 catches.
“For some reason, we’ve begun to gel and the chemistry is good,” Parsons said. “Winning helps, of course, but you can really see we’re a different team. I don’t know how to explain it. We’ve lightened the load in practice to try to keep guys fresh. We’re having fun and keeping the energy up.”
Puaauli has been a stabilizing force. He missed his entire junior season with a torn ACL, and has slowly regained his conditioning. He wasn’t himself, Parsons says, until a 42-41 victory at Ripon, a win that announced the Crusaders as legitimate title contenders.
Puaauli has at least one touchdown in seven straight games, including a season-high three against Ripon. He is the thunder (74 carries, 387 yards, 10 TDs) to Davion Gates’ lightning (92 carries, 760 yards, eight TDs).
“He seems like he’s finally in shape and that’s helped him mentally,” Parsons said. “Right now, he’s on a mission. He doesn’t take any crap in practice, and if a guy doesn’t give him what he wants, he’s speaking up before the coaches.
“Paul has the reins now. When a player does that for you, I can focus on the Xs and Os instead of stomping my feet.”