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First SJS football title in reach for Ripon Christian
FB--Ripon Christian-Rio Vista ADV file pic 3
Ripon Chrisitan quarterback Mark Ozenbaugh hands it off to Michael Kamps as Shane Casillas (25) and Gabe Bartholomew (55) look to make a play at the line of scrimmage for visiting Stone Ridge Chrisitan. - photo by Photo by WAYNE THALLANDER

Trey Ozenbaugh was impressed with Rio Vista.

Chris Medders felt the same about Ozenbaugh’s Ripon Christian Knights after their teams dueled in Bret Harte’s preseason jamboree back in August.

“Their coach and I said it would be fun to get each other on the schedule in the coming years,” Ozenbaugh said. 

Why wait?

They’ll reunite Saturday at Lincoln High’s Alex G. Spanos Stadium, only this time it’s for real — and for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII championship.

“It’s a great opporunity for us as a team,” RC defensive end/fullback Willem Hoekstra said. “It’s time to make history.”

The No. 2-seeded Knights (7-4) are making their second final-round appearance — they lost the 2013 Division VI championship 35-28 against Bradshaw Christian — after stomping Stone Ridge Christian 39-3 last week. It was the type of performance they hoped for after a head-scratching 10-6 loss at Delhi in their Southern Athletic League finale. 

“It kind of reminded us of last season and what it was like to lose a game we knew we should have won,” Knights running back/defensive back Michael Kamps said. “It just kind of lit a fire under us and we haven’t looked back. Credit to Delhi, they game planned well for us, but it’s benefitting us now.”

Ripon Christian has its running game — led by Kamps (1,220 yards, 20 TDs) — and defense locked in, and they’ll need both to counter top-seeded Rio Vista (8-3) in the first-ever meeting (not counting scrimmages) between the two.

The Rams walloped Woodland Christian 39-3 in the other semifinal, and it was their first postseason victory since 2011 and fourth overall in program history. They’ve qualified for the playoffs seven straight years. Rio Vista and Ripon Christian were awarded first-round byes in the six-team Division VII bracket.

Both teams are battle tested, with each having losses to successful programs coming from schools with larger enrollments. Rio Vista has won four in a row since its 58-6 loss to Bradshaw Christian — the top seed in Division VI — in Sierra Delta League play. The other losses were to Division IV qualifier Natomas, 34-28, and undefeated Harker out of San Jose, 33-13.

The Knights first three losses were to Mother Lode League stalwart Summerville, Southern League champion Orestimba and runner-up Gustine. Those experiences could come in handy against Rio Vista, the only public school in the bracket which has an enrollment that nearly doubles everyone else’s in the field. 

“During the season, my teammates and I didn’t know we’d be down in Division VII,” Kamps said. “We were just preparing for the teams we know well like Orestimba and Gustine and it’s really helping us. We understand the competition and we can better game plan for teams like Rio Vista who are near our level.”

Rio Vista features a multi-dimensional offense that mixes some Wing-T with spread. Ryan Hurley (1,239 yards, 17 TDs) stars in the Rams’ balanced attack along with Dakota Mills (760 yards rushing, 12 TDs; 584 receiving, 7 TDs) and sophomore quarterback Ethan Medders (1,190 yards, 15TDs, six INTs; 221 yards rushing, TD). The quarterbacks for both teams — Mark Ozenbaugh for RC — are the sons of the head coaches.

“They’re definitely a good opponent,” Hoekstra said. “They have a couple good running backs and a quarterback who is a dual threat. Every quarterback we’ve faced has been like that. Having that opportunity the whole year really prepared us for this week.”

Hoekstra added that the team is “blessed” to still be playing this late in the season. Sticking to the holiday theme, coach Ozenbaugh says his players are “thankful and hungry.” The feast doesn’t end Saturday for the winning team, which also clinches a spot in a CIF State Northern Californina Regional Bowl Game.

“I’m extremely encouraged,” Ozenbaugh said. “The kids are still enjoying each other, and they ackowledge that they are one of the few teams still playing. They’re thankful and they’re hungry, and they remain coachable. I really like the pulse of our team right now. I think we’re peaking.”