Aside from a crucial insurance pick-six when all was going right for his team, Danny Hernandez's main contribution for Ripon during the biggest football game in school history was as a blocker when the going got tough.
Yes, a blocker.
That’s one of the many reasons he is the Manteca Bulletin All-Area Football MVP. Hernandez excelled in many roles for the CIF State Division 4-AA champion Indians (14-1) and is one of the few players to play in every game on a squad had to overcome key injuries all season.
“I believe that having low numbers all year gave my team and me an edge when it came to experience,” Hernandez said. “Most of our starters go both ways and even play on special teams and that has been crucial for us as it’s helped us in some big games. We feel like having the best players out there at all times is the most effective way to play the way we played all season.”
Juggling different roles isn’t anything out of the ordinary for a team that featured a quarterback who also punted and covered receivers, a placekicker who doubled as a lineman and a middle linebacker who made big plays downfield as a pass catcher.
Hernandez, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound running back/safety known more for his game-breaking ability, displayed his leadership, unselfishness and versatility even if few others noticed. Hernandez tends to shy away from the spotlight anyway, but there's no denying the all-around impact he made for Ripon.
He led the team in rushing (1,233 yards, 12 touchdowns), tackles (84) and defensive turnovers (three interceptions, two fumble recoveries). Hernandez also had the most catches on the team with 35 for 361 yards and three scores. Remarkably, all three of his interceptions were returned for touchdowns. He had two more scores on kickoffs and one on a punt return.
“I mean we all knew that in order to win it had to be a team effort,” Hernandez said. “It was never was going to be a one-person show. We knew that someone may take a hit in their stats in order for us to win and that’s all we cared about. I’ve never met more unselfish people in my life.”
Hernandez had just 47 yards on nine touches from scrimmage, but like any other Indians player he had his own way of making an impact in their 31-28 win over Highland of Palmdale in the state bowl game.
Nathan Valdez, that kicking lineman, nailed a dramatic 36-yard field goal in the final minute in the driving rain on what was an otherwise dry night.
Last-second heroics did not appear to be necessary earlier in the contest when the Indians staked a 21-0 lead. Hernandez had just made his splashy play of the contest, a 37-yard interception return to paydirt midway through the second quarter. Other than that, the team’s leading rusher for the season wasn’t getting his usual touches.
“After the first series, he says, ‘Coach, they’re overloading on me, let me block,’” Ripon coach Chris Musseman said. “He did not care about getting the ball. He pretty much said, ‘Use me as a decoy.’”
It’s a role he was already used to. On special teams, most opposing teams did not dare to kick it his way. That’s because he averaged 48.7 yards on six kickoff returns, and 23.5 yards on four punt returns.
The hard-hitting safety was named All-Trans Valley League Outstanding Defensive Back. Against Sutter’s run-heavy Wing-T offense in the CIF State Northern California Regional Bowl Game, the Ripon coaching staff moved him to linebacker.
“Danny is a super smart football player,” Musseman said. “He played middle linebacker and made middle linebacker reads against teams like Sutter. He’s such an instinctual football player we felt like we could put him anywhere.”
Hernandez came through in big games all season for Ripon, even after spraining his ankle in the second round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V playoffs. That did little to slow him down.
The following week, he helped the Indians overcome a 27-3 deficit as they rolled past Amador 34-33 in a semifinal thriller. He totaled 16 touches and 102 yards from scrimmage while racking up 11 tackles on defense.
Ripon then captured its second SJS title with its 21-13 upset of top-seeded Center. Hernandez was held to 57 yards on 12 rushes but accounted for two of the touchdowns. He also compiled a team-high 12 tackles, two pass deflections and forced a fumble, an effort that awarded him the Cal-Hi Sports Northern California Defensive Player of the Week honor.
In the NorCal Game against Sutter, he rushed a season-high 23 times for 147 yards and a touchdown.
“I went to rehab every day so I could play like my old self, but (the sprained ankle) was still affecting my play on the field throughout the playoffs,” Hernandez said. “I would say I was about 70% in the playoffs.”
This was more than enough for the Indians, who found ways to keep him fresh all season.
“As a coaching staff, we probably limited his ability to have more impressive stats because we kept him off the field as much as we could,” Musseman said. “There were games he could have easily run for 300 yards, but those kids really didn’t care about stats.”
It was all about winning.
Among Hernandez’s favorite moments was the 42-21 win over previously-undefeated rival Escalon. He had one of his best all-around efforts of the season — 11 rushes for 105 yards and a touchdown; six receptions for 44 yards; seven tackles and a 34-yard pick-six.
Escalon went on to claim the SJS Division VI and CIF State Division 4-A titles, but it was Ripon that wound up with the Cal-Hi Sports Small Schools Team of the Year.
“It was a special moment, not just for my teammates and I but the whole community,” Hernandez said of garnering the school’s first state title at Stouffer Field. “From being doubted to make the playoffs and then to play for a state championship at the field I grew up playing football ever since Pop Warner is truly a special moment I’ll never forget.”
ALL-AREA FOOTBALL TEAM
Co-Offensive Players of the Year
WR/RB Jacob De Jesus, Manteca, Sr. — Valley Oak League MVP shattered school receiving records, finishing with 64 catches, 1,139 yards and 16 touchdowns as well as 590 rushing yards and seven scores.
RB Kimoni Stanley, Sierra, Jr. — Second-year starter set a single-season program record with 2,112 rushing yards to go with 33 touchdowns and isn’t far off from breaking the career mark next year.
Defensive Player of the Year
MLB Holden Fishburn, Sierra, Sr .— The T’wolves’ best all-around athlete — he’s a track and field standout in the spring — was the heart and soul of a defense that allowed just 14.4 points in five postseason contests.
Lineman of the Year
LT/DL Caleb Delgado, Ripon, Sr. — The Trans-Valley League’s Outstanding Offensive Lineman did it on both sides of scrimmage, contributing 56 tackles (11.5 for losses) and 7.5 sacks on defense.
Utility Player of the Year
RB/DB Sean McGovern, Ripon Christian, Sr. — Southern Athletic League MVP totaled 33 touchdowns, racked up 1,374 yards rushing, 513 receiving while collecting 57 tackles, four picks and 10 pass deflections.
QB Nico Ilardi, Ripon, Sr.
QB Ryan Ward, Manteca, Sr.
RB Trabron Russell, Manteca, Sr.
WR Dorian Dougherty, Ripon, Sr.
WR Sunny Dozier, Manteca, Sr.
TE Troy Brogan, Ripon, Sr.
OL Josh Grabowski, East Union, Sr.
OL Omar Maxwell, Sierra, Sr.
OL Jacob Sanchez, Manteca, Sr.
OL Erik Weststeyn, Ripon Christian, Sr.
OL Jeremiah Willey, Ripon, Sr.
DL Garrett Bryan, Ripon Christian, Sr.
DL Dominic Neuharth, Manteca, Jr.
DL Evans Nicolas, Manteca, Sr.
DL Christian Threadgill, Sierra, Jr.
LB Angel Garay, Manteca, Sr.
LB Garren Genilla, Manteca, Sr.
LB Grant Wiebe, Ripon, Sr.
LB Wyatt Van Vliet, Ripon Christian, Sr.
DB Shane Johnson, Sierra, Sr.
DB Quincy Robinson, Manteca, Sr.
DB Isaac Searcy, Manteca, Sr.
RB/LB Matt Dunham, Sierra, Sr.
RB/LB Nyco Mendoza, Sierra, Sr.
WR/RB/LB Brandon Rainer, Ripon, Sr.
K/P/OL/DL Nathan Valdez, Ripon, Sr.