The spoils of victory keep pouring in for Sac-Joaquin Section Division V and CIF State Division 4-AA champion Ripon, which was crowned Cal-Hi Sports Small Schools Team of the Year on Monday.
In addition, Chris Musseman was recognized as Small Schools State Coach of the Year, joining the short list of coaches from the region to receive this distinction.
“We have a great staff that puts this together, it's not one-guy thing at all,” Musseman said following his team's 31-14 thumping of Sutter in the CIF State Division 4-AA Northern California Regional Bowl Game. “The players have bought into 100 percent of what we do scheme-wise. This is because of the whole staff and the kids.”
The section title is the program's second, coming 23 years after the first. All that followed were firsts for the Indians, who finished 14-1 after edging Highland of Palmdale — a school with roughly three times the enrollment of Ripon's — in the state finale 31-28 thanks to Nathan Valdez's 36-yard field goal in the final minute.
Ripon's accomplishments are remarkable considering it had to overcome injuries and a thin roster. The Indians started the season with barely more than 20 players, and there were questions with the offensive line with two projected starters leaving the program in the offseason.
Musseman's worst fears were realized on Sept. 20 when the Indians visited Hilmar to start the Trans-Valley League season. Star quarterback Nico Ilardi — the eventual All-TVL Outstanding Offensive Player — went down with a sprained ACL in the first quarter and the dominoes dropped from there for a team that went into the contest with only 18 players suited up. Five two-way starters in all exited the contest with various ailments before halftime, and the Indians sustained their only defeat, 38-27 against the then-reigning CIF State Division 6-AA champion.
“We've been through a lot this season and have had so many games that taught us so much,” running back/linebacker Grant Wiebe said. He and Brandon Rainer were also injured at Hilmar, and both competed with balky shoulders the rest of the season.
“It's insane, with all the injuries and stuff, you don't know what's going to happen when you step onto this field. All I can do is give everything I've got.”
Four weeks later, held together by slings, wraps and braces, Ripon hosted unbeaten rival Escalon — the Cal-Hi Sports No. 1-ranked small-school squad at the time. Ilardi and Wiebe were questionable for the game, but both played a part in the surprisingly one-sided 42-21 victory over the Cougars.
That ended up being Escalon's only loss. Ripon, Escalon and Hilmar secured a three-way share for the TVL title. Escalon and Hilmar faced off in the SJS Division VI title game for the second straight year. The Cougars rolled 41-27 and went on to crush La Jolla 52-21 for the CIF State Division 4-A championship.
Meanwhile, Ripon continued to build its impressive 2019 resume while bringing up junior varsity players to fill out its game-day rosters. The second-seeded Indians reached the semifinal round of the SJS playoffs for a third straight season and appeared to be on their way another semifinal exit.
No. 3 Amador opened with a 27-3 blitz and was in position to put it away early late in the first half with possession in the red zone. A costly fumble gave Ripon life, as did an onside-kick recovery from the Indians after they scored their first touchdown of the game. That was the start of an incredible 34-33 comeback victory.
“That Amador game woke our kids up,” Musseman said.
That set the Indians up for a final-round date with undefeated Center of Antelope, which had what was believed to be its best team in school history. Big underdogs, Ripon prevailed, 21-13. The dominant win over Northern Section powerhouse Sutter, which did not run a single offensive play in the final period, further strengthen the Indians' case as the best of the small-schools best.
“We never doubted ourselves,” Wiebe said.
Musseman has a special relationship with the nine seniors on the team, all of them important two-way players. These seniors were all freshmen when Musseman, a longtime assistant under Chris Johnson, took over as head coach.
“We all love Muss, most of us have had him as a teacher as well,” Ilardi said. “Everybody develops a tight bond here because it's such a small school, so we know all the teachers and you really get to know the coaches who spend a third of the year with you.
“I've been with him two-thirds of every year in high school so we've developed a special bond,” Ilardi added. Musseman is also the school's boys golf coach in the spring, and Ilardi is the reigning MVP and Most Outstanding Golfer in the TVL.
Former Escalon coach Mark Louriero was named Cal-Hi Small Schools State Coach of the Year in 2019, while Hilmar's Frank Marques got it in 2008. In 2006, Former Manteca coach Eric Reis got coach of the year honors in the medium schools division.