East Nicolaus couldn’t overcome a nightmare start.
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 over East Nicolaus in the Northern California 6-AA championship at Atwater High.
It was the first loss of the year for the Spartans (13-1).
“There’s no excuses for it,” said East Nicolaus coach Travis Barker. “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 champions 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 54-52 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 getting off to slow starts in their last two playoff games, the Yellowjackets started fast with 27 first-quarter points against the Spartans.
The 27 points were more points than the East Nicolaus defense had given up all season.
The Spartans fumbled on the first play from scrimmage and a bumbled handoff and Hilmar’s David Moreno pounced on the ball to give the Yellowjackets the ball at East Nicolaus’ 15-yard line.
It took just one play for Hilmar quarterback Treven Crowley to pass the out 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 on the night 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 fumble at the Yellowjackets’ 27-yard line.
Hilmar needed just 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 on the next possession with Moreno recovering the ball. Crowley connected with 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 first 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.”