AT A GLANCE
WHO: No. 3 Woodland Christian (9-2) vs. No. 1 Ripon Christian (10-2)
WHAT: Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII final
WHEN: Friday, 6 p.m. kickoff
WHERE: Sanguinetti Field, St. Mary’s High, Stockton
ADMISSION: $15 general admission, $12 senior citizens/military, $8 high school students with I.D., children 5-under free
Ripon Christian’s final practice before tangling with Woodland Christian (11-1) for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII championship on Friday takes place this morning starting at 7.
For some players and coaches, a traditional Thanksgiving Day church service follows at 10.
These Knights are happy to do it.
“We’re super grateful to be playing,” Ripon Christian coach Phil Grams said. “It’s crazy that out of the 200 teams in our Section, we’re one of only 14 teams to still be doing it. We’re super grateful to be practicing on Thanksgiving, and we feel like if we play our best game, we can beat anybody right now.”
One of these schools will garner its first Section football championship at Sanguinetti Field on the campus of St. Mary’s of Stockton. Woodland Christian lost its only final-round game to Le Grand last year, 35-12. Ripon Christian defeated the Cardinals 46-0 in their only previous matchup back in 2013 when it advanced to its first final.
Top-seeded Ripon Christian (10-2) has reason to be confident going into its fourth SJS title-game appearance. The Knights opened their season with a 42-14 loss to Central Section powerhouse Central Valley Christian and have won seven in a row since their 21-7 setback at Orestimba in Southern Athletic League play.
They marched past six postseason qualifiers along the way, and these games were decided by an average margin of 38.9 points. The most recent was an impressive 55-12 dismantling of Stone Ridge Christian in the semifinals.
“We’ve been practicing like pros for the past few weeks,” he said. “The guys even travel like pros — the bus rides are quiet. We do our business in walkthroughs and in warm-ups. I think that Orestimba game was a turning point for our season.
“We were crisp again in practice (Wednesday), and hopefully that streak continues on Thanksgiving morning.”
The Knights were plagued by dropped passes and untimely mistakes on defense, giving up two long touchdown passes. They were also not at full strength, as 6-foot-8 tight end Thys Van Der Hoek had to fill in at tackle for the week.
Ripon Christian has since limited the mistakes and will have its best 22 available for the start of the championship game. Grams gives a nod to his coordinators — Randy Fasani on offense, Eddie Erdelatz on defense — and assistants for having the ready to perform every day in practice and on game day.
Dual-threat quarterback Trey Fasani, Randy’s son, has been both explosive and efficient in running the team’s hybrid “pro-fly” system — a combination of coach Fasani’s pro-style attack and Grams’ fly offense.
The younger Fasani has completed 66.1 percent of his passes for 1,633 yards and 28 touchdowns to six interceptions, while rushing for 437 yards (8.9 per carry) and six scores.
Everyone gets a chance to shine in this offense. Running backs Grant Sonke (1,039 total yards, 13 TDs) and Derek Van Elderen (939 yards, 11 TDs) and slotback Brady Grondz (634 yards, nine TDs) are playmakers as rushers and receivers, while 6-foot-5 wide out Griffin De Abreu (40 receptions, 690 yards, 15 TDs) is one of the top red-zone threats in the Section.
Linebackers Dustin Hoekstra (88 tackles) and Sonke (64 tackles, three sacks) and lineman Jacob Kowes (six sacks) have anchored Erdelatz’s stout defensive front.
“The coaching staff is amazing,” Grams said. “The effort hey put in for these kids is incredible.”
Ripon Christian will be tested by a team that has been just as good on both sides of scrimmage.
Woodland Christian has also plowed past its last seven opponents and lambasted Le Grand 44-0 in a rematch of the 2021 final.
The third-seeded Cardinals’ postseason run started with a 45-8 blowout of Gustine but was initially in doubt after the SJS declared them to be ineligible for rostering players deemed to be illegal because of a clerical error. A Yolo County judge granted a temporary restraining order that allowed Woodland Christian to play its first-round game, and the SJS has not disputed it, so far.
Woodland Christian has also played Stone Ridge, winning the non-league match-up, 21-14. The lone loss came against Pioneer, 26-14, but Michael Paschke’s squad has bulled through the remaining competition.
The Cardinals are averaging 45.3 points and allowing 8.4. They shut out two of their four Sacramento Metro Athletic League opponents, giving up 25 total points while pouring on 57.3 per tilt.
Woodland Christian rushes for 249.6 yards per game and throws for 102.3 out of its hybrid pistol-Wing-T.
“They have the athletes to do it,” Grams said. “They have dudes that are big, and they have dudes that are fast. And they’re very well coached.”
Woodland Christian’s physical offensive line is bookended by 6-5, 340-pound Noah Rico and 5-11, 310-pound Santos Nixon. Interior lineman Louie Personeni (8.5 sacks, three forced fumbles) and Shane Osborne (52 tackles, four fumble recoveries) are among the standouts defensively.
Quarterback Caden Pascoe (1,040 yards, 14 TDs, four INTs) has kept defenses honest with his deep-ball ability. Billy Hinkle is the headliner of WC’s balanced attack with 1,224 total yards (14.5 per carry) and 18 touchdowns. Freshman Noah Hinkle (751 total yards, six TDs), Keigi Kungu (438 yards, 12 TDs; 64 tackles), Gabe Sanchez and 5-11, 225-pound Khai Brown also get touches.
Sophomore Carter Lang is the leading wide out with 358 yards and four TDs. Devin Herrera, also a sophomore, has grabbed five interceptions on defense, while Jordan Sacramento has 5.5 sacks.
Ripon Christian has grown comfortable with playing at unfamiliar venues. The last home game was a 35-7 SAL win over Gustine on Oct. 21, and the Knights capped regular-season play at Delhi.
The team has not hosted an SJS playoff game because of sanctions stemming from its involvement with a club football league during the 2021 spring COVID season.
“These guys know how to travel because we’ve been on the road a lot,” Grams said. “If we’re the same team from the last two weeks shows up Friday night, we got a shot.”