STOCKTON — With a student enrollment that rarely hovers far north of 200, Ripon Christian has sprouted into a small-school giant in the Sac-Joaquin Section.
In recent years, the Knights have shed their image as a school that specializes in basketball and volleyball when it comes to athletics. The girls volleyball club does, after all, own a SJS-leading 15 section banners, while the boys and girls hoops teams each rank at No. 2 behind more renown private school powers Modesto Christian (boys) and St. Mary’s (girls).
Ripon Christian’s talents have extended beyond the hardwood and onto the grass and FieldTurf.
Since 2014, they’ve earned section championships in girls soccer, boys soccer and softball. The baseball team reached its first section title game in 2016, and with the postseason format shifting to enrollment-based brackets for the sport Ripon Christian may soon hoist a blue banner on the diamond.
A section football championship also eludes the school, but the program will surely go into its 15th season with expectations of competing for one. Never mind the 56-28 loss to Rio Vista in the SJS Division VII final Saturday at Alex G. Spanos Stadium. Rio Vista has nearly double the kids on its campus than every other school — all tiny private schools with less than 200 students — in the bracket, and Ripon Christian aided the Rams’ cause with early turnovers leading to an insurmountable 30-0 deficit in the first quarter.
“It sucks to lose,” Ripon Christian junior tailback Michael Kamps said. “It sucks to lose big games. This is something we don’t want to feel again. We’re going to go out and do everything we can to get back here.”
Don’t bet against the returning 1,000-yard rusher and the Knights, who have proven that last year’s 2-8 finish was an aberration. From 2012 to 2015, Ripon Christian enjoyed consecutive seasons with nine wins or more, and in 2013 the Knights nearly stunned much-favored Bradshaw Christian in the SJS Division VI final, losing 35-28.
This past season they finished 7-5 with every loss coming to schools with much larger enrollments —most notably Southern League champion Orestimba, which has nearly as many students (about 900) as Ripon High.
“Some more depth at key positions would be helpful,” Ripon Christian coach Trey Ozenbaugh said. “We have a lot of kids that go both ways. It would help in the Southern League. We’re the smallest school in the Southern League by a couple hundred kids, I would imagine. We always have a saying: You come to Ripon Christian, you play a lot.”
Despite its disadvantages, Ripon Christian has indeed rebounded well from one of its worst seasons and is set up for another nice run. The coaching staff and younger players credit the 10 seniors in the program for anchoring the turnaround and steering the ship back on course toward that first section title.
“As of right now, I’m just proud of my teammates and what we’ve accomplished this year,” Kamps said. “I’m also disappointed that we couldn’t take this game. I’m so proud of the seniors, they led us. It’s 100 percent credit to them and our coaches, (because) they led us so well.”
Linebacker Wyatt Van Vliet, one of four sophomores who started the season on the varsity, relished the opportunity to play with his older brother Caleb, a team captain. Their cousin, Drew, is a junior on the team.
“I’ll miss playing with my brother, playing with all of them,” Wyatt said. “They're all good guys and I love them. We just have to learn from what the seniors did for us and continue their work in the offseason. We'll be back here next year.”
There are big shoes to fill — quite literally (See: 6-foot-2, 280-poundish linemen Justin Heida, 6-2 and Willem Vermuelen, and 6-7, 225-pound tight end Andrew Vander Weide). Defensive end and reigning Southern League Defensive Player of the Year Willem Hoekstra was a three-year varsity starter and is among those who will be sorely missed.
While looking ahead to a promising future, Ozenbaugh — whose son Mark was starting quarterback the past two seasons — honors this special group of seniors.
“We had a lot of young guys make all-league this year, whether they're sophomores or juniors,” Ozenbaugh said. “Do I like the pieces we have coming? Yes.
“This group of seniors led us so well, and they really bought into being ‘us’ minded and being unselfish football players. It made it a joy to coach them because we weren’t dealing with the extra drama outside of it.”
Now it’s up to a new set of leaders rise. Kamps is a likely candidate as the team’s top skill-position player who will enter his third varsity season. The four sophomores — fullback/linebacker Max Steele, receiver/cornerback Sean McGovern, lineman Garrett Bryan and Wyatt Van Vliet — were all very productive as varsity rookies. Van Vliet, in fact, finishes as the team’s leading tackler.
Even with the quartet playing up a level, the sophomore squad rolled to a 9-1 record with the lone loss being a close one to undefeated Orestimba, 22-20.
“We had four guys come up, and they were all huge pieces to our team,” Kamps said. “I’m excited to see what they’re going to be like later and I think they have room to improve and are going to get better. They’re all committed to this. Even some guys who came up from the JV team are talented. I think we’re looking up for the future.”
And perhaps soon, the Knights faithful will be looking up at a section championship banner for football on a gym wall already blanketed by reminders of past conquests in other sports.