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Ripon making first appearance at state today

Sierra’s Morris is lone representative for Manteca Unified

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Ripon making first appearance at state today

Christian Plata, from left, Alex Steinberg, Victor Serrano, Jordan Gibson and Ryan Torres are among Ripon High's first qualifiers to today's state cross country meet.

DAVE CAMPBELL/Bulletin file photo


POSTED November 27, 2010 2:38 a.m.
After a quick walkthrough of Woodward Park in Fresno, the annual site of the CIF State Cross Country Championships, Ripon High head coach Paul Calkins and his runners settled into their hotel rooms at around 5:30 Friday night for a little rest and relaxation.

While scouting out the relatively flat 5,000-meter course is something new to the program, which previously never had an individual qualify for the state meet, the one-night stay had already been booked for over a month.

“I was just convinced that we’d be here,” Calkins said.

When the Division-IV race begins with a shotgun start at 9 this morning, Ripon’s boys will take their first strides toward school history. Joining in on this momentous occasion is junior Jessica Bettencourt, who will be Ripon’s first-ever girls harrier to compete at state. Her race is scheduled to start at 10:05.

The state championships will kick off at 8:30 with the Division-III boys race, which includes Sierra High junior Ricky Morris. Morris placed fourth overall in the Sac-Joaquin Section meet at the Willow Hill Cross Country Course in Folsom in 16 minutes, 48 seconds — the best time posted by any area competitor that day. It was a major improvement from his sub-section finish of 17th place (17:28) at the mountainous Frogtown trail in Angels Camp.

Sending kids to the state meet is more of annual tradition for Sierra, a school rich with tradition of distance-running standouts since it opened in the mid-1990s.

But for Ripon, this run to state has been a long time coming. In his 18th year of leading the program, Calkins saw something special in this current group of athletes very early in the season.

“I knew by the way the kids were running over the summer that they’d do well in (the Trans Valley) league, but I was not sure at first,” Calkins said. “Then we went to our first preseason meet — the Lodi Flame Invitational at Lodi Lake (on Sept. 1) — and beat all the Division-IV schools that were there.

“It was at that point I knew our boys team could win league. Not only were they beating all of the other D-IV schools in the section, they were beating them easily — and taking down some D-I and D-II schools in the process.”

The first order of business for Ripon was to capture its first league title in decades. Calkins guessed that the last time a Ripon boys team did that was in the 1980s, possibly even in the 70s.

But to achieve that they had to overthrow the TVL’s longtime king of cross country — Riverbank.

Riverbank’s reign ended by a landslide, with Ripon coasting to team victories in the first two cluster meets in which it outscored the Bruins 33-62 and 21-48.

And at Tuolumne River Regional Park in Modesto Oct. 27, Ripon secured the championship in the TVL finals. Once again, it was not close: Ripon won with 25 points, Hughson was the runner-up with 52 and Riverbank took third with 73.

From an individual standpoint, the Indians did have their challenges. Dillon Mart of Orestimba won two of the three TVL meets, with Riverbank’s Ben Hodges taking the other. Mart and Hodges placed first and third, respectively, at the section meet and are also state qualifiers.

Ripon, to its credit, hasn’t had to lean on one or two standouts. Its success hinges on depth and team camaraderie, and that’s what helped the Indians pad their postseason resume with the program’s first championships at the sub-section and section levels.

Sophomore Ryan Torres has been Ripon’s pacesetter all season, and he was one of four Indians to place in the top 10 at sections. Following Torres (fourth overall, 17:34) were Jordan Gibson (seventh, 17:49), Alec Steinberg (eighth, 17:52), Victor Serrano (ninth, 17:59) and Christian Plata (17th, 18:20).

Ripon outpointed second-place Bret Harte, 38-75.

“Our depth goes all the way down to our eighth or ninth runners,” Calkins said. “If we lose our No. 5, say to an injury, I can always have someone else take his place and it will have no negative effect on our team.

“We just really have a good bunch of kids. They’re not arrogant, they’re very supportive of each other and they’re all in (Advanced Placement) and honors classes.”

The Indians are realistic about their chances for today’s race. Cross country and track are sports dominated by Southern California schools, namely from the Southern Section.

In fact, three of the team favorites hail from the same conference — Harvard/Westlake (North Hollywood), Notre Dame (Sherman Oaks) and Crespi (Encino) are ranked 1, 3 and 5 in Division-IV boys by DyeStatCal.com.

A top-10 finish, Calkins said, would be a moral victory worth celebrating.

Ripon’s banner season has consisted of many firsts, but Calkins suspects that in 2011 the team will be back for seconds.

Of the top five runners, Ripon’s boys team graduates only Serrano, a senior who was named to the Bulletin’s All-Area Boys Cross Country team last year. Steinberg is a sophomore, while Gibson and Plata are juniors.

Calkins also thinks Bettencourt could have company at next year’s state meet, because the girls team — which had its season end with a sixth-place finish at sub-sections — is even younger than the boys. Bettencourt finished sixth overall at sections but was the final individual state qualifier out of Division IV.

“We’ve come close (to qualifying individual runners to state) in the past, so to take a full boys team along with Jessica is really exciting,” Calkins said. “Jessica really showed grit and determination (at sections) and did what she needed to do to get to state.

“If all goes well, we could have both the boys and girls teams down here the next two or three years.”
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