Ripon Christian hadn’t faced much adversity all season, but coach Phil Grams made sure his team was ready to respond to it Friday when the top-seeded Knights grappled with No. 4 Orestimba in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII-A final.
Sparked by two forced turnovers 53 seconds apart early in the second half, Ripon Christian scored 28 unanswered points to blast past its Southern Athletic League rival 35-14 and repeat as Section champion.
The visiting Warriors (9-4) took advantage after a controversial interception in their own end zone and had all the momentum when standout running back Juan Esquivez scored on an electrifying 69-yard scamper three plays later. Orestimba led 14-7 with 10:19 remaining, and it was the first time Ripon Christian (12-1) had trailed since its week-zero loss at Central Valley Christian.
The Knights were able to tie it up on Preston Zuidervaart’s 1-yard touchdown with 1:23 left, but Orestimba was due to receive the second-half kickoff.
“I read some scripture about adversity before the game,” Grams said. “At the half I just said, ‘Hey, are we the better ball club or are they?” I talked to them about the scripture I read about adversity before the game and said, ‘OK, we faced it, now let’s just go out and do our thing.’”
Their ‘thing’ is to play stifling, ball-hawking defense and gain control offensively with a physical run game.
Third-year senior fullback/linebacker Grant Sonke played a part in all of it. He led the Knights with 104 yards from scrimmage (94 on the ground on 17 carries) and a touchdown, but it was his big play on defense that turned the tide.
On the second play of the second half, Orestimba quarterback Alex Millan completed a short pass to Drew Felber for an 11-yard gain. Sonke wrapped up the receiver before yanking the ball from Felber’s arms, and safety Amos Cady recovered it.
The Knights took the lead for good two plays later, as Mason Tameling connected with tight end Jace Beidleman up the middle for a 10-yard touchdown.
“This is obviously a team game,” Sonke said. “We had a great game plan offensively and defensively, but coach did say there are going to be plays where certain guys need to step up. It’s not just myself, other guys stepped up.”
Logan De Jong took his turn in stepping up on Ripon Christian’s next defensive series, as he fell on the loose ball after the Warriors mishandled a handoff.
Ripon Christian again struck quickly following the takeaway, needing just three plays to double the led on Zuidervaart’s 15-yard run. The Knights added one more score in the third quarter, as Sonke capped a 6-minute drive with a 1-yard plunge.
After Orestimba controlled the line of scrimmage in the first half, it was all Ripon Christian in the second. De Jong recorded the lone sack of the game in the fourth quarter.
“Everybody put everything they had into it,” the 6-foot, 220-pound two-way lineman said. “We started out a bit slow, but in the end everybody gave everything they had and nobody had a misstep on every single play. It was just beautiful. It just came together in the second half.”
Ripon Christian piled up 325 yards of offense with speedy flyback Brady Grondz (18 rushes, 78 yards) getting untracked in the second half. Zuidervaart finished with 29 yards and two touchdowns on six carries.
Tameling completed seven of 11 passes for 109 yards, two touchdowns and the questionable interception. The sophomore looked to his towering tight end on third-and-10 from the Orestimba 25, and the 6-8 Beidleman — who was flagged for offensive pass interference anyway — came down with it in the end zone. Orestimba defensive back Daryl Summerfield managed to wrestle it away after the two players stumbled out of bounds and was credited with the pick.
Esquivez accounted for the majority of the Warriors’ 211 yards, rushing for 138 and two touchdowns on 12 carries while catching three passes for 13 yards. Half of his rushing yards came on the 69-yard TD, however, and he was held to just 14 in the second half.
Millan split snaps with Jacob Valenzuela behind center, and they combined to finish 8-of-22 passing for 59 yards.
One of the most prolific backs in the state with 2,227 rushing yards and 38 touchdowns coming into the game, Esquivez went down with an injury after his 55-yard kickoff return in the final minute of the third quarter. He’s also one of their leading tacklers on defense.
“He is a great runner,” Zuidervaart said. “We know the numbers he can put up and the damage that he can do. We just needed more energy out there. Once we picked it up, we were stopping them left and right. Once we picked up the energy, that got everything going.”
Esquivez was a non-factor in their regular-season game dominated by Ripon Christian from the outset, 42-12.
“They were here to play,” Sonke said. “We were a little bit shocked, honestly. The first time around the score was a little lopsided, but that’s a very good football team.
“This was great to prepare us for what’s next. We have another great opponent coming up.
Ripon Christian will play for a NorCal berth next week against Division VII-B champion Woodland Christian (12-0) at a date and site yet to be determined. It’s a rematch of last year’s Division-VII championship. The Cardinals took care of Stone Ridge Christian, 39-0.
Orestimba 7 7 0 0 — 14
Ripon Christian 7 7 21 0 — 35
R —Luke Crivello 36 pass from Mason Tameling (Ethan Schenk kick), 8:30.
O — Juan Esquivez 4 run (Devon Bell kick), 3:06.
O — Esquivez 69 run (Bell kick), 10:19.
R — Preston Zuidervaart (Schenk kick), 1:23.
R — Jace Beidleman 10 pass from Tameling (Schenk kick), 10:47.
R — Zuidervaart 15 run (Schenk kick), 9:59.
R — Grant Sonke 1 run (Schenk kick), 0:42.5.