Ripon Christian appeared to have an Andrew Brown clone in the form of junior tail back Brian Sytsma.
He averaged 167.5 yards in the Knights’ first two games of the season, and in their final tune-up for Southern League play he had a hand in five touchdowns — three rushing, one receiving and another passing.
Thing is, the slightly-built Sytsma is no Andrew Brown. Knowing this, he never felt any extra pressure in trying to be like his predecessor after spending most of 2013 sidelined with a wrist injury while on the frosh-soph squad.
“We had to fill those big shoes,” Sytsma said. “That’s definitely a hard task but it’s a team effort. A lot of people said we wouldn’t be as good without Andrew Brown and we’ve proven them wrong.”
Ripon Christian (9-2) has reached the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI semifinals for a fourth straight year and visits unbeaten Capital Christian in Sacramento on Friday.
Brown graduated as Ripon Christian’s all-time leading rusher and future Knights will be hard pressed to match his three-year production. He led the program to its first-ever SJS final in last season when he scampered for 2,781 yards and 48 touchdowns. Oh, and he was the Knights’ top receiver with 658 yards and seven scores. His 126 career touchdowns are a section record and rank him No. 4 on the state’s all-time list.
“Andrew was a great playmaker and the offense that (former coach Randy) Fasani put together was really made up around him,” senior Kevin Kramer said. “This year we knew we had to step up.”
Injuries slowed Sytsma’s early-season roll, and because he’s had to share carries Ripon Christian didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher in the regular season for the first time since 2009. The 5-foot-9, 155-pounder has eclipsed the four-digit barrier in total offense (783 rushing, 266 receiving, 10 TDs), but Kramer (761 yards, 9 TDs rushing) — Brown’s understudy a year ago — has also proven more than capable of carrying the load when needed.
In last week’s 34-13 upset of fourth-seeded Golden Sierra (8-3), No. 5 Ripon Christian put the ball in the hard-charging Kramer’s hands to dominate the second half. He scored all three of his touchdowns over the final two periods and finished with 124 yards on 24 rushes. It was his third 100-yard effort of the season, the other two coming in other big wins over Orestimba and Mariposa.
“When I can’t quite do the job for the team he’s always there to clean up after me,” Sytsma said of Kramer.
Playing through a bruised rib, Sytsma was limited to playing mostly defense after rushing just three times for 9 yards last week, but he still managed to make his presence felt. He returned an interception 45 yards to paydirt with 4:53 left in the game, slamming the door shut on the Grizzlies.
Others have emerged as threats out of the backfield committee.
Juniors Derek Dotinga (257 yards, 3 TDs) and Seth Silveira (138 yards, 3 TDs) have both seen time at fullback and tailback. Dotinga snared a key 16-yard pass out of the flats at Golden Sierra while Silveira, the team’s usual starting lead blocker, was dinged up on the sideline.
“I’ve to step up because of injuries,” Dotinga said. “I just did my job and tried to perform as best I could. I just try to make the most out of my opportunities.”
Silveira’s biggest moments as a ball carrier came in Week 10 against Delhi. He had season highs in carries (five) and yards (96) while showing surprising burst on touchdown runs spanning 55 and 31 yards.
“It just shows how many weapons we have,” Kramer said. “It’s not just Sytsma and I running the ball, it might be Derek and it might be Seth. All of our backs are very skilled in running the ball and getting yards.”
The backfield quartet, of course, credits the offensive line, one that Silveira touts as “the best” in the Southern League this season. It is certainly one of the biggest RC has had over the years, with center Tyler Driesen (6-2, 270) as its anchor, seniors Adam Mensonides (6-2, 220) and Jake Schollenberg (6-4, 265) at the tackle spots, and Fletcher Schmeidt (5-9, 250) and Will Kamps (6-1, 220) serving as guards.
“It all starts with the linemen,” Kramer said. “Without them we don’t get the yards.”
Maybe not as many yards — or touchdowns — as Brown, but more than enough to keep Ripon Christian competitive without him.
“Obviously a lot of people were asking the question, ‘How are you going to replace Andrew?’” Ripon Christian coach Trey Ozenbaugh said. “We’re blessed to have many options in that area.”