It is said that offense wins games and defense wins championships, but on Saturday night at Ripon High it was special teams that propelled the Indians to their first state title.
Following the 36-yard field goal by Nathan Valdez through gusting winds and swirling rain that put Ripon ahead 31-28 over Highland of Palmdale with 28.4 seconds remaining, Austin Bonilla came up with his second huge special teams play of the night — and maybe the biggest of his career.
On the ensuing kickoff, Aaron Wood forced a fumble right in front of the Indians bench for Bonilla to recover, sealing the win for the Indians (14-1) and with it the CIF State Division 4-AA championship.
“I was thinking I had to get that ball,” Bonilla said. “I jumped on it, secured it and held on as tight as I could.”
“It was crazy – such an unbelievable feeling.”
Wood did not know the Indians had recovered the final fumble until he heard the standing-room only crowd erupt in celebration.
“I knew we had to at least stop them and maybe get the ball back,” Wood said. “My hand went in there and I just stripped it.
“When I heard everyone celebrating I knew we had it then.”
Early in the first half, Highland star running back Isaiah Creech muffed a punt, and Bonilla slid across the turf to recover it on the Bulldogs 30 as the returner reached down for it.
It was apparent from the start that Ripon had the upper-hand in special teams. Valdez, also the punter who plays on the offensive and defensive lines, blasted punts of 46 and 53 yards after the Indians' first two drives, keeping field possession in his team's favor. Later in the half, he had another 53-yard punt that pinned the Bulldogs inside the 10, though the visitors wound up scoring anyways thanks to two deep passes from Damiel Pecoraro to Demarius Jamison.
Highland (12-4) failed to score on its first drive, which stalled on Ripon's 14. The Bulldogs have no made field goals this season and converted just six of 15 point-after kicks. They've had to rely on two-point tries instead and converted two of four on Saturday, but it's final attempt failed as Bonilla knocked away the pass intended for the 6-foot-6 Jamison in the end zone.
“Being able to kick field goals and PATs in high school is huge,” Ripon coach Chris Musseman said. “Look at them, they're struggling — they don't kick anything and that hurt them tonight. We stopped them a couple times deep (in Ripon territory), where we'd come out of it with three (points) but they came out with nothing.”
Ripon benefited from a short field on its first scoring drive thanks to a 13-yard punt that set the Indina sup on the Highland 30. Two plays later, Grant Wiebe scored the game's first points with a 17-yard run.
The night was rain-free until midway through the fourth quarter, and by the time Valdez was ready to help Ripon make history the rain was coming down hard.
“I really wasn’t that concerned about it,” Musseman said of Valdez’s field goal. “He came up to me before the drive and said, `Get us in field-goal range, I’ll make the kick.’
“And he was totally calm.”
According to Valdez, his field goal was a total team effort.
“I had to believe in myself, my line, my long snapper and my holder, Caleb Johnston and Nico Ilardi,” Valdez said. “The snap, the hold — everything was perfect. More than I could ask for.”
Although Valdez’s kickoffs can routinely reach within the 5-yard line, Musseman elected to squib most of his kickoffs to keep the ball away from 2,000-yard rusher Isaiah Creech – with 153 yards on the ground Saturday — who had 455 yards in kickoff returns this season.
“I was not going to give the ball to No. 24 (Creech) at any point in the game if it was up to me,” Musseman said. “I didn’t want that kid touching it.
“We would kick to anybody but 24.”
That strategy paid off at the end when Wood forced the fumble.
“That strip at the end was pretty nice,” Musseman said. “I couldn’t believe that kid fumbled.
“I feel really bad for that kid, but hey, it worked out for us.”