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POSTED October 18, 2013 12:43 a.m.

Chris Johnson and Frank Marques’ relationship extends beyond the painted sidelines and stands of the football field.

Johnson not only serves as the Ripon High football coach, but also the school’s athletic director, steering a department that ranks among the Sac-Joaquin Section’s top small schools.

Marques wears the same two caps for Hilmar High, and speaks glowingly about Johnson’s poise in each capacity.

“I think they have a class act as a coach. They don’t get any nicer than Chris Johnson,” he said. “His teams play hard, but they play with class too.

“It all starts at the top.”

Well, now here’s the rub: Tonight, for four quarters, those warm feelings and kind words will have to be suppressed.

Tonight, Johnson and Marques will stand on opposite sidelines, wishing defeat on one another.

It promises to be a momentous clash, one that will surely decide the Trans-Valley League title with three weeks to play.

Ripon and Hilmar are tied atop the league standings at 3-0, with matching 7-0 overall records.

With a win, the Indians will have successfully navigated the gauntlet in their schedule – a four-game stretch that includes Escalon, Modesto Christian, Hughson and Hilmar – leaving only two-win Riverbank and one-win Orestimba on the schedule.

Hilmar has turned heads with its start to league play. The Yellowjackets blanked Modesto Christian and then ran roughshod over Orestimba and Riverbank by matching 49-6 counts.

Now comes the meat of its schedule, though, beginning with Ripon, Northern California’s sixth-ranked Division III team.

“We’re trying to ignore the hype and all those preseason polls,” Marques said. “None of it matters on the field. All that matters is how you play on the field.

“We just need to stay focused on what we’re doing.”

On a field overflowing with speed and athleticism at the skill positions, the game will likely be dictated by the play inside the box.

Can Ripon lineman Kody Day and hard-nosed linebacker Michael Morris get to Hilmar junior quarterback Jonathan O’Brien in time to slow a spread offense averaging nearly 40 points per game?

“(Day) is a beast. (Michael Ysit) is all over the field. (Morris) is a player and (Josh Clark) does a really good job for them,” Marques said, complimenting the principles for a unit yielding just 8 points per game.

“Their defense is a lot like ours – really quick and they get to the ball. They’ll put a lot of pressure on our offense.”

Conversely, can the Indians’ offensive line keep their own sensational young quarterback, Nick Price, on his feet long enough to carry out his assignments in the Wing?

This much is certain, the sophomore won’t have long.

Hilmar has accumulated 32 sacks in seven games, led by Robert Lindo (8.5), Bernardo Duran (7.5) and David Bisby (5.5).

“Our D-line is the quickest we’ve ever had,” Marques said. “… They put a lot of pressure on offenses. We have (created) interceptions and turnovers, and it’s because of the high pressure.”

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