SACRAMENTO — Ripon’s Nico Ilardi had his first basketball drill Saturday, and he passed with flying colors.
With the second-seeded Indians leading by eight points and top-seeded Center of Antelope driving to try and tie the game with time running out in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V championship game, Center’s Brandon Fernandes ran a deep pattern to the Indians 5-yard line where he and Ilardi skied high for a jump ball.
Ilardi won, knocking the ball loose and propelling Ripon to its first section championship since 1996 with a thrilling 21-13 come-from-behind win at Sacramento City College’s Hughes Stadium. And unlike in 1996, the Indians will now compete in the state playoffs.
“I haven’t had to play defense very much this year because I hurt my knee,” Ilardi said. The quarterback also played safety until spraining an ACL in Ripon's fifth game of the season.
“Last week was my first week back on defense in over a month and we are short in the secondary. I jumped up, got my had in there and ripped out se he couldn’t catch it. It was instinct.
“Winning the championship means so much,” Ilardi added. “Growing up in a small town like Ripon you know everyone and this is just crazy.”
Ilardi’s main job Saturday was directing the offense, and direct it he did. He finished 10 of 12 passing for 190 yards with a touchdown and interception.
He called his own number for short first-down plunges when the defensive sets favored such and came up with clutch completions on third and fourth down, creating opportunities where none look like they existed.
“Ilardi is the best quarterback we have ever had,” Indians coach Chris Musseman said. “The kid is unbelievable. There are no words that can describe Nico Ilardi. It would take pages.
“I tell Nico the play, but if he sees something else he goes ahead on takes it, like he did on those short sneaks for first down.”
Twice on third-and-long in the third quarter, Ilardi pulled a rabbit out of his hat with both tosses going to Brandon Rainer.
Early in the period, Rainer pulled in a 37-yard pass to set up a field-goal attempt and later snagged a 36-yard, third-down catch as part of a 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive that ended in the fourth quarter with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Ilardi to Dorian Dougherty to put Ripon (12-1) ahead for good at 14-13.
“I knew I was going to be open on that first one,” Rainer said. “He had been biting on that out and we had got him good a couple of times. I knew I had the sideline but I had to get my feet in.
On the other one, I knew I would not have had the first down so I had to back up a bit. Nico and I have that communication between us and we have had it all year.”
Danny Hernandez (12 carries, 62 yards) iced the game with a 1-yard scoring plunge late in the fourth quarter. He got the Indians on the board in the second period when after nearly being caught for a loss he squirted around the left end and up the sideline for a 19-yard touchdown run and a 7-0 lead.
“Our line has been the best all year,” Hernandez said. “They are small, they are fast and they can match up with anybody. They work so hard.”
Ripon’s Troy Brogan had big plays on both sides of the ball, pressuring Michael Wortham, the Cougars' shifty quarterback, relentlessly while pulling in four passes for 82 yards from Ilardi.
“Nico and I have had a connection ever since we were little,” Brogan said. “I told him today that I was going to be open and to find me and we connected on some critical plays.”
Grant Wiebe was another Indian that stood out on both sides of the ball, grinding out 56 yards on 14 carries and ending any hopes for a comeback by Center (12-1) with a sack to kill the last Cougars drive.
Ripon 0 7 0 14 — 21
Center 0 7 6 0 —13
R—Danny Hernandez 19 run (Nathan Valdez kick), 5:42
C—Demoraw Jones 4 run (Brandon Stanley kick), :08
C—Brandon Fernandes 9 pass from Michael Wortham (kick fail), 4:41
R—Dorian Dougherty 19 pass from Nico Ilardi (Valdez kick), 10:28
R—Danny Hernandez 1 run (Valdez kick), 4:10