LATHROP – The Lathrop Spartans had a variety of incentives to post a win in their final non-league matchup Friday night.
First, it was the night that the field they play on was formally dedicated to a man – Bennie Gatto – that has spent nearly five decades, and every year that the school has been open, prowling the sidelines on a chain gang.
And it was a chance to gain some momentum before heading into the perennially tough Valley Oak League when they open up against the East Union Lancers next week.
But there was only one problem – they had to get past the brick wall that was the Ripon High School defense led by senior linebacker Tyler Swortfiguer.
The Indians – who had only allowed 20 total points in their previous three contests – played every bit of the stingy defense that has become their trademark this year in a 37-3 romp over the host Spartans to spoil the dedication of Bennie Gatto Field.
“They’re a solid, well-coached team and they execute,” said Lathrop head coach Jesse Rodriguez. “It’s definitely a good opponent to get us ready for the VOL season. We’re playing harder every week. We just need to start playing smarter.”
Lathrop got an early break when a near sack of Ripon’s Kody Wengel by Austin Plunk on the game’s first play led to an interception by Ross Woods. The swing gave the Spartans prime field position, and a good first drive ended with an Eric Deleon field goal for an early lead that they would hold for the majority of the first quarter.
But while it took Ripon some time to get its offense moving, stopping it once it got started was next to impossible.
Running back Jake McCreath showed his range of ability when he reeled off a 42-yard touchdown run to give the Indians the lead at the end of the first quarter, and he soon returned to his bruising ways by pounding the ball up the middle for solid gains that kept the chains moving throughout the contest.
He finished with 146 rushing yards and a pair of scores.
“We got a really good push at the line tonight and that made a big difference,” McCreath said. “Those guys (Lathrop) really worked hard out there tonight.
“We approached this like it was a league game because we’ve got Escalon next week and it’s by far the biggest game of the year for us. We didn’t look past these guys and did what we had to do.”
While Ripon’s defense was universally celebrated – forcing three-and-outs on all but two Lathrop drives – miscues on offense irked head coach Chris Johnson the week before his squad squares off with one of the best small school programs in the State.
Counting the Wengel interception, the Indians had a total of six turnovers – some stemming from botched exchanges and others from mishandled punts that ended up giving Lathrop good field position and chances to score that never materialized.
“We have to work right now on not turning the ball over and doing the right things,” Johnson said. “The TVL is tough and we’re going to be taking on one of the best programs in the area, and while our defense looked good, our offense was sloppy.
“But I think that you can tell a lot about a unit when they have their back up against the goal line, and that’s what we saw with our defense at the start of the game. They stepped up big and