A first-round bye followed by a tough-to-swallow defeat has Ripon Christian antsy.
“They’re hungry and focused,” said coach Trey Ozenbaugh, whose second-seeded Knights (6-4) play host to a familiar foe tonight in the semifinal round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII playoffs. “They’re anxious to get back to hitting an opponent instead of each other.”
It will be an all-Knights rematch with third-seeded Stone Ridge Christian (10-1), a school RC has a growing rivalry with. They’re playing for a second time this season after Ripon Christian blew out the Knights from Merced 35-6 on the road back in Week 1.
Ozenbaugh insists his squad will see a different team this time around and expects a far more competitive result. Stone Ridge hasn’t lost a game since the Sept. 1 meeting, marching its way to the Central California Athletic Alliance crown and blowing out most opponents along the way. Stone Ridge held off then-undefeated Big Valley Christian 24-14 for the league championship in Week 10, then blasted CCAA rival Brookside Christian 50-14 in the postseason opener.
“We went down and watched them against Brookside, and it helped keep the kids focused,” Ozenbaugh said. “They saw what they can do. Stone Ridge is a much-improved team over the team we beat earlier this season.”
Ripon Christian used a balanced attack and a stingy defense that held Stone Ridge to just 83 yards. Shane Casillas (1,159 yards, 13 TDs) Stone Ridge’s top running back, had his least productive game of the season with just 17 yards on 13 carries.
Quarterback Bryce Louters (813 yards, 10 TDs, three INTs) is now playing more of a role in the running game and has 558 yards (11.4 per carry) and six touchdowns. He has big-bodied receivers in 6-foot-2, 180-pound Cole Houweling (300 yards, four TDs) and 6-1, 225-pound tight end Luke Jenkins (248 yards, four TDs).
Louters is a relative of Ripon Christian fullback/defensive end Willem Hoekstra.
“As with any team that progresses, coaching staffs become more aware of the untapped abilities of their players,” Ozenbaugh said. “Their quarterback is their best athlete, and they are utilizing his legs more as the season has gone on. Defensively, they’re more active up front than early in the season. We certainly anticipate a physical contest. It’s going to be a good, physical and hard-nosed football game.”
While Stone Ridge is surging, Ripon Christian is coming off a disappointing 10-6 loss to Delhi in its Southern Athletic League finale. Ripon Christian outgained the Hawks 288-181 in offensive yardage but was thwarted by three turnovers.
“It was a great wake-up call,” Ozenbaugh said. “I love the maturity of this group. They themselves helped identify the things they did not do well which led to the loss. There’s strong senior leadership and great unity.”
The defeat likely cost Ripon Christian the No. 1 seed, which belongs to Rio Vista (7-3). Rio Vista squares off with Woodland Christian (10-1) in the other semifinal, and the winners of the two games will vie for the Division VII championship on Nov. 25.
Stone Ridge is a win from a fourth straight final-round appearance and seized section banners in 2014 and 15. Ripon Christian competed for the Division VI title in 2013 and nearly upset Bradshaw Christian in a 35-28 loss.
“The big thing we’ve stressed is to not make it bigger than it is,” Ozenbaugh said. “There’s a tremendous opportunity for us, but we don’t want to look past what is right in front of us.”