AT A GLANCE
WHO: Ripon Christian (11-2) at Hughson (11-2)
WHAT: California Interscholastic Federation Division V-AA Northern Regional Bowl Game
WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m. kickoff
WHERE: Hughson High
ADMISSION: $12 general, $8 children/students/seniors 65-plus. Tickets available online on gofan.co.
Ripon Christian rallied in the second half to claim its first ever Sac-Joaquin Section championship last Friday, but the achievement came at a price.
The Knights (11-2) are likely to miss multiple two-way standouts for their first California Interscholastic Federation Northern Regional Bowl Game appearance this upcoming Friday at Hughson (11-2), a battle-tested Trans-Valley League squad and decided favorite in this Division V-AA matchup.
Palo Vere Valley (13-1) of Blythe and Muir (8-6) of Pasadena are in the SoCal side of the bracket, and the winners of each will meet for a state championship on Saturday, Dec. 10.
“It’s going to be very difficult to attack a great Hughson team without some of our key players, but we’re still a good football team and we still prepare well,” Ripon Christian coach Phil Grams said. “This is another opportunity and a chance to play another week. We feel good with the guys we have and they’re going to play their butts off.”
Ripon Christian was the top seed in the SJS Division VII playoffs, and it blanked No. 3 Woodland Christian in the second half en route to a 28-16 victory at St. Mary’s. The Knights had dropped their previous three Section-final appearances.
Meanwhile, Hughson appears to be on its way to restoring its former glory, annexing its fifth SJS banner in six title-round opportunities and first since 2000. The Huskies avenged one of their regular-season losses in the Division VI championship game, surviving a last-minute scare against top-seeded Summerville, 14-13.
At this point, Hughson has grown comfortable with nervous situations. Its last four games have all been decided by four or less points, and that run started in the TVL finale against Ripon, which roared back from a 21-0 deficit but could not convert on a late two-point conversion in a 21-19 heartbreaker for the Indians.
Since then, Hughson held off Twelve Bridges 35-34 in double overtime in the SJS quarterfinals and overcame Orestimba for a second time this season with a last-second touchdown pass.
“If you’re tested every single week like that, you’re ready for a championship game,” Grams said. “Their coaching staff is very good, and I’m friends with (coach Shaun) King. I’m sure they’ve learned something from all of those games and they’re going to be ready to go.
“We’ve learned from our own experiences we’ve had this year. We think we’re battle tested, too.”
Hughson stunned Escalon 29-14 on its way to a second-place finish in the TVL gauntlet. Escalon went on to repeat as SJS Division V champion. The Huskies’ other loss was to TVL titlist Hilmar, 49-26.
The two wins over Orestimba stand out because one of Ripon Christian’s losses came at the hands of its biggest Southern League rival. Hughson earlier downed the Warriors of Newman 41-28 back on Aug. 26. The Knights lost to them 21-7 three weeks later but were stumped by injuries, penalties and dropped passes.
They’ve since been on a tear, blowing out seven straight opponents before meeting their match against a big and physical Woodland Christian team.
“We’re a different ball from the one that played Orestimba,” Grams said, noting the team’s improvement in focus and practice habits. “We have a lot of momentum.”
Ripon Christian has been an even bigger underdog this season, opening with a 42-14 loss to Central Section power Central Valley Christian. The Cavaliers from Visalia suffered their only defeat of the season in the CS Division II final against Lemoore, 62-46.
The Knights are preparing for a balanced Wing-T offense featuring a punishing running back in Liam Bridgford (1,227 yards, 6.4 per carry, 13 TD). Alex Villareal (775 yards, nine TDs) is another threat out of the backfield.
Sophomore quarterback Robert McDaniel (116 of 189 passing, 1,700 yards, 23 TDs, six picks) is supported by Larkin Meyer (21 receptions, 499 yards, 10 TDs), David Delgado (35-411-5) and 6-foot-2, 200-pound Abraham Montes (26-357-3).
Right tackle Navi Arretche (6-4, 290 pounds) anchors the offensive line. Defensively, middle linebacker David Burns is among the SJS leaders in tackles with 132. On the back end, Delgado and Meyer have five and four interceptions, respectively.
“Their offense is very balanced,” Grams said. “They run a version of the Wing-T, which we’ve seen a lot of, but you can’t just take one thing away from them. Their defense has some guys and runs multiple coverages. They’re very talented and very deep on both sides of the ball.”
He and the rest of the Knights are well aware of what they’re up against, but they are not intimidated.
“We’ve already been through big moments, just like they have,” Grams said. “Playing CVC early on in the season with a super good defensive line and a really good offense prepares you a lot. Orestimba is very good too, we just came up short that game. And in our last game, Woodland Christian was very good up front. I think all three of those games combined prepares us to play this game.”