The CIF State Division 4-AA title game appears to be a classic David versus Goliath matchup on the surface.
Just the way Ripon likes it.
On Saturday, the state’s top small-school team hosts Highland (12-3), making the 300-mile trip from Los Angeles County, in what will be a historic contest for both programs at Stouffer Field.
With a student enrollment nearing 3,000, Highland is one of three high schools in the high-desert city of Palmdale, home to 150,000-plus people.
“We’ve been doubted all year,” senior quarterback Nico Ilardi said after leading Ripon to a 31-14 rout of Sutter in its first-ever NorCal appearance last Friday, Dec. 6. “We’ve always been the underdog, heck we might be the underdog in the state game, too.
“We fully embrace it, though. It takes all the pressure off of us. Sutter was expected to beat us and we love that. No one expects to win and we get to come out and play as free as we can.”
Ilardi said he and the Indians (13-1) are inspired by the support from the city, which has a population nearing 16,000. Ripon the school has about a third of the students at Highland with around 950.
CIF’s competitive-equity model does not consider enrollments for postseason brackets, leading to what some may conceive as unfair matchups. There are recent examples, however, proving that the discrepancy in enrollment figures don’t matter in match-ups pitting two public schools.
Escalon, Ripon’s Trans-Valley League rival which has around 100 less students, is vying for the Division 4-A state crown after crushing Chico-based power Pleasant Valley (about 2,000 students), 41-17. The Cougars welcome La Jolla from the San Diego Section on Saturday.
Highland is a first-time section winner after dispatching North Torrance 24-12 in the Southern Section Division 9 championship. There are 14 divisions in the Southern Section, which has committed to the competitive equity format. Last year, the Bulldogs competed in Division 10 and lost in the title round.
Highland would be one of the top three largest schools here in Sac-Joaquin Section where it would compete in Division I. The SJS is the second largest section in the state and still factors enrollments — with some exceptions — in breaking up its postseason qualifiers into seven divisions.
Highland rallied for 28 unanswered points to topple Selma SoCal regional, 42-29. Meanwhile, Ripon dominated Northern Section juggernaut Sutter 31-14 in the NorCal Bowl at Downey High of Modesto, marking the second time this season that the Indians took down a Cal-Hi Sports No. 1-ranked small-schools team. They earlier trampled highly-favored Escalon 42-21 with several of their top players, such as Ilardi, recovering from injuries.
Those two wins along with its 21-13 shocker over previously-unbeaten Center in the SJS Division V final have Ripon sitting at atop the Cal-Hi Sports poll.
MaxPreps computer projections favor Ripon in the state finale, 34-24.
“They’re super athletic, really big and they’ve been rolling people most of the year,” Ripon coach Chris Musseman said of Highland. “There’s just no way to know how we compare, it’s not like we have any like opponents. I look at them and see a Division I school in our section. They look good on film, but until you see them in person you don’t know.”
Sutter coach Ryan Reynolds came away impressed last week after watching his team struggle to get untracked against the Indians, who kept the Huskies’ prolific Wing-T offense sidelined for the entire fourth period. It was Sutter’s second loss of the season, the first coming against Santa Rosa parochial powerhouse Cardinal Newman, 21-7, in its season opener. Cardinal Newman is playing in the Division 3-AA state championship.
“These guys are up there with some of the top teams we’ve faced, aside from Cardinal Newman — those guys are an anomaly,” Reynolds said. He led the Huskies to their sixth NS title in eight years with their 20-7 victory over previously-undefeated Paradise in the Division III final.
“Ripon made the plays. You just have to tip your hat to them.”
When the CIF released the regional matchups, Musseman questioned his team’s NorCal pairing with Sutter — a program accustomed to tangling with big-name opponents. At this point, he’s done playing the underdog card.
“These kids know it’s a big challenge but they like that,” he said. “There’s really nothing to lose — what a great season we’ve had. The kids can go play free and fast and just go have fun, which makes us dangerous.”