The Lathrop and Ripon football teams are at a crossroads heading into their pivotal Week 2 matchup at Bennie Gatto Field.
Ripon (0-2) needs a win following staggering losses. Another defeat this Friday and the Indians are in danger of going 0-5 before Trans-Valley League play with road games against North Section power Sutter and tradition-rich Sonora looming.
“I would be lying to say we aren’t feeling a little extra pressure, but we knew coming into this season our first five games were going to be tough,” Ripon coach Chris Johnson said. “This is the youngest team we have ever had and it will take some time for us to get used to that level of play.
“Honestly, we are looking at 2014 like two separate seasons — five preseason games, bye week, then TVL. We built this schedule to help get us better for our league. That is what counts, period.”
For Lathrop (1-1), it’s a chance to wrap up its pre-league schedule with a winning mark for just the second time in its six-year varsity history. The only other time it happened was 2010, when the Spartans dropped all of their Valley Oak League contests to finish 2-8. They are looking to make the program’s first Sac-Joaquin Section playoff appearance, so any win it can get early in the season is a must before venturing into an always-tough Valley Oak League schedule.
“Momentum is everything,” second-year Lathrop coach Steven Wichman said. “Momentum provides belief and that belief gives any team a chance to win on Friday nights. We would certainly benefit from having momentum going into league, however in order to gain that momentum we will have to do it by beating a very tough Ripon team.”
Both coaches have praised the opposing team with little regard to history. Ripon allowed just three points in its two nonleague blowouts of Lathrop the past two seasons. But the improving Spartans are riding high off their 24-8 win over Liberty Ranch (Galt) had opportunities to beat undefeated West (Tracy) in a 20-7 zero-week loss.
While Lathrop continues to tinker with its new-look shotgun offense led by QB Diego Chavez, its defense is off to an outstanding start. One of the touchdowns the Spartans gave up to West was a 96-yard pick-six as time expired. That’s not good news for a Ripon team that went seven straight quarters without an offensive touchdown to start the year.
Johnson doesn’t consider Lathrop to be a break in what is easily the most grueling nonleague schedule for a Manteca-area team. He has gone as far as to say that his squad is “definitely” the underdog Friday night, this after guiding the Indians to successive postseason berths and a 30-5 record in the last three seasons.
“Lathrop is a much improved team,” Johnson said. “They have size and speed, (and) they are much more fundamentally sound on both sides of the ball than they have been in the past.”
Wichman believes Ripon is still a player among small schools in the region. Some may have their doubts after the Indians were dealt surprisingly lopsided losses by Sierra (54-7) and Patterson (38-14) — two 2-0 squads from larger schools that overwhelmed Ripon with their sheer size and speed.
Don’t count Wichman as one of those doubters. He calls Ripon “our biggest challenge.”
“Ripon is the best 0-2 team in the area,” he said. “The record is not indicative of their team’s ability. They have played two very tough, very talented opponents. Ripon is well coach, extremely disciplined and very organized.
“Friday night will be the test that our program needs to determine where we are in relation to teams like Ripon who have witnessed success in previous years.”