Ripon Christian's goals for 2019 are simply stated by its head coach:
• Win league.
• Win section.
• Win state.
Welcome to the Randy Fasani Era 2.0.
“I would say the major difference when I started to now in 2019 is our mental preparation going into games,” Fasani said. “We don't approach games hoping to win, we expect to win.”
It's a refrain coined by predecessor and good friend Trey Ozenbaugh, who now serves as team chaplain after six years as head coach. Last year, with Fasani as his offensive coordinator and longtime assistant Eddie Erdelatz commanding the defense, Ozenbaugh led the Knights to their first-ever 10-0 regular-season finish.
They ended up 12-1 — one win shy of checking off two of their goals. Trans-Valley League powerhouse Hilmar rolled past Ripon Christian 57-14 in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI title game and claimed a CIF state championship two weeks later.
Ripon Christian is now 0-3 in section finals. Fasani guided the Knights to their first SJS final in 2013.
That was Fasani's only season as head coach in his first go-around — he shared the position with John Vander Schaaf the previous year. He's back at the table but with a larger appetite to satiate.
“We've played in quite a few section championship games in the past few years and I'm tired of losing them,” Fasani said.
There's no denying that Ripon Christian belongs in the top tier of small schools in the section. The Knights handed eventual SJS and CIF Division VII champion Denair its only loss of the season, and handled SJS top seed Modesto Christian 25-12 in the SJS Division VI semifinals.
They soundly defeated the reigning TVL champion Crusaders but were then punished by Hilmar a week later. As far as the program has come, Ripon Christian still has something to prove.
“It obviously hurts a lot,” returning lineman Garrett Bryan said. “It was a devastating end to an almost-perfect season. Everyone has been fueled by that loss to Hilmar.”
The All-SL Co-Defensive Lineman of the Year is one of three third-year starters leading the quest for a third straight section title game. Sean McGovern and Wyatt Van Vliet round out the triumvirate, and joining the experienced senior class are juniors from the undefeated JV squad.
“We have a lot of returning seniors and some talented juniors coming up,” McGovern said. “I think we have the potential to be as good if not better. We were pretty successful last year so we'll have a big target on our back, but we're ready for it.”
There are some big shoes to fill, namely those left behind by two-way lineman Drew Van Vliet and running back Michael Kamps (2,088 total yards, 36 touchdowns) — the Southern League MVP and Co-Offensive Player of the Year, respectively.
McGovern, a two-time all-league first team defensive back, moves from receiver to replace Kamps in the backfield, which gives the most athletic player on the team more opportunities to make plays. He led RC with 32 catches for 560 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Ian Vrieling (28-348-4) steps in as the new No. 1 receiver.
Despite its small roster, Ripon Christian has depth at all positions. It all starts with the offensive line that returns five starters — center Erik Weststeyn was the starting center to begin 2018 but suffered an injury.
Junior Joel Hiemstra and Modesto Christian transfer Seth Gallo are expected to be immediate contributors. With experience at both offensive guard spots, the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Bryan is the Knights' top all-around lineman.
“I really think the strength of our team is with our offensive and defensive lines, and that's a coach's dream,” Fasani said.
Quarterbacks Nolan Lingley and Jacob Van Groningen remain under the tutelage of Fasani, who played the position at Stanford and the NFL.
Last season, Lingley split time with Cade Alger before going down with a season-ending shoulder injury. Van Groningen played sparingly behind center but made the most of his few opportunities, especially on a heroic game-winning drive against then-defending Southern League champion Orestimba.
Lingley is the more explosive athlete with the ability to make plays on the run, while the 6-4 Van Groningen can burn defenses with a strong and accurate arm. The latter will also see time at tight end.
“We'll definitely utilize both of them in the huddle at the same time,” Fasani said. “I'm not afraid to call trick plays, and I know that both of them will throw touchdown passes this season.”
The defense, which Bryan describes as “terrifying” and “relentless,” brings back eight starters from a unit that surrendered 9.8 points per game and had four shutouts in a five-game stretch.
Van Vliet (113 tackles) returns at middle linebacker along with Declan Van Vuren (78 tackles, 12.5 sacks) on the outside. Jadon Booth and Will Gilbert come up from the JV ranks to fill roles at outside linebacker and cornerback.
The Knights believe the pieces are in place for another historic season, and it's an opportunity the seniors don't want to take for granted.
“I've seen two great senior classes leave, and for me there was that feeling that I have another year,” Bryan said. “Now that moment is here for me. I saw what it means to them, and I'm going to let that sit with me all season.”