Ripon’s tight-knit group of seniors is small in number but not lacking in talent and expectations.
These Indians have never endured a losing season going back to their days on the Ripon Chiefs youth program, and they don’t plan on changing that in their final year together. They aspire to deliver a long overdue championship-round appearance in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.
“We’ve grown up together and we’ve seen what we can do as a group since Pop Warner,” Nico Ilardi said. “It has always been a successful group that will win at all costs. It’s in our blood.”
Ilardi and the Indians certainly have a tough act to follow, but it’s a challenge they look forward to meeting. Ilardi takes over at quarterback for three-year standout and reigning All-TVL Outstanding Offensive Player Ryan Daggett (1,127 yards, 67 completion percentage, 13 TDs) — also Ripon’s leading rusher (743 yards, 11 TDs).
The Indians must also replace their leading tackler Greg Clark, an all-league selection at both linebacker and offensive guard, hard-charging running back Derric Roy and another three-year starter in multi-purpose threat Roland Davis.
Ripon is coming off its best season under fourth-year head coach Chris Musseman, repeating as Trans-Valley League co-champion while finishing 10-2.
Musseman believes the team can achieve much of the same, if not more.
It was knocked out in the SJS semifinals the past two seasons by Bear River, one stop short of reaching the title round for the first time since 1996 when the Indians mauled Mariposa 31-14 for the Division IV banner. Ripon lost all of its previous four title games.
The key? Health.
Ripon started its first official practices with only 18 juniors and seniors combined. Junior varsity players are being evaluated, and a handful of them, including some sophomores, are likely to join the big boys for the Aug. 23 season opener against Weston Ranch.
“If we can stay healthy, we’re going to be pretty good,” Musseman said. “Managing their playing time and keeping them focused on what’s going on in practice is tough when you only have 18 or 19 guys.”
Ripon was fortunate to navigate through the 2018 season with few injuries and had enough depth — despite its limited roster — to replace starters with little drop-off in quality.
“We were really deep in the skill positions,” Musseman said. “We don’t have that this year.”
They expected to have more depth in the trenches this season but won’t have that either with two projected starters no longer on the team. The best of the bunch is back in the form of 6-foot-3, 225-pound right tackle Caleb Delgado and center Jeremiah Willey. They’ll also have significant playing time on defense.
Returning all-league outside linebacker Grant Wiebe (103 tackles, 9.5 sacks), inside linebacker Brandon Rainer (82 tackles, four forced fumbles), defensive lineman Troy Brogan (50 tackles, 6.0 sacks) and defensive back Danny Hernandez (four interceptions) return for an experienced defensive unit that surrendered 14.3 points per game and recorded four shutouts. Sophomore Caleb Johnston and junior Mason Knight are expected to contribute right away in the 3-3 front as linebackers.
“We lost a couple key pieces but it’s most of the same guys who are now bigger, faster stronger and smarter,” Rainer said. “It’s going to be a fun defense to watch and be a part of this year.”
He’ll likely have a more expanded role in Ripon’s balanced Wing-T offense, as well. Hernandez (640 total yards, seven TDs) is a home-run threat out of the backfield that will include plenty of Rainer and Wiebe.
At 6-3, 215 pounds, Brogan gives Ilardi a big target in the passing game. Sure-handed receiver Dorian Dougherty also returns. He’s the team’s only third-year player but was limited by a shoulder injury last year.
“We have a lot of weapons,” Ilardi said. “A lot of these guys probably didn’t get as many looks as they should have last year because we were so deep, but we’re pretty well set on offense.”
Added Rainer: “The coaches will do what’s best for the team. We all just want to win as a team. When it comes to things like personal stats, we’re not worried about that.”
Playing time shouldn’t be an issue for these short-handed Indians. There will likely be some who will gladly take a breather.
Count Ilardi among them.
An All-TVL first-team selection at both defensive back and punter, he’ll continue to fill those roles even with the added responsibility of leading the offense. Oh, and he made honorable mention at receiver last year, and Musseman hinted at making use of his pass-catching abilities.
“We may do some interesting things with him,” Musseman said, “but he’s not strictly a quarterback on our team. He’s an all-league caliber DB, and because we’re so thin I’m not too sure we can not play him there.”
Playing most snaps is a difficult task, Rainer said. It’s as demanding mentally as it is physically, requiring their minds to stay sharp even as their bodies wear down. But he and his fellow seniors are willing to grind through it to reach their intended destination.
“Losing two years in a row the way we did and against the same team, we don’t want it to end there again,” Rainer said. “We want to get past the semifinals and win that section championship.”