It has been 23 years since Ripon has reached a Sac-Joaquin Section championship football game.
The Indians have a chance to end that drought tonight at Stouffer Field, where they’ll meet No. 3 Amador in a clash of 10-1 tri-champions. Ripon, seeded No. 2, is in the semifinals for a third consecutive season after failing to get past Grass Valley powerhouse Bear River the previous two years.
Ripon captured the SJS Division IV banner in 1996, defeating Mariposa 31-14 for its lone title in five final-round appearances.
“We want that monkey off our back,” Ripon coach Chris Musseman said. “We have been here three years in a row and haven’t gotten past this point, so the kids are little more focused and determined. It’s not good enough for them just to get here.”
Ripon got here with a near-perfect regular-season run marred only by an injury-plagued 38-27 setback at Hilmar. The Indians have since blasted rival Escalon 42-21 — the Cougars were ranked as the top small-school team in the state by Cal-Hi Sports — and earned a sixth straight win in the second round last week, 41-7 over Foothill.
Ripon is one of three Trans Valley League champions and goes for the Mother Lode League sweep tonight. Amador split the MLL crown with Sonora and Calaveras, two teams the Indians soundly beat earlier in the season (55-14 over Sonora, 24-0 over Calaveras).
Amador was a heavy favorite in the MLL but stumbled to a mistake-ridden 17-10 loss to Calaveras. The Buffaloes atoned for it two weeks later, scorching Sonora, 49-14. It was the first MLL defeat for five-time defending champion Sonora, which had a dominant 32-game streak of league games end. Second-year junior quarterback Gunner Drake starred in Amador’s historic victory, completing 15 of 20 passes for 200 yards and five touchdowns.
“Playing against Calaveras, they have some quickness up front that gave us a little trouble and hurt Amador’s offensive line a little bit,” Musseman said. “Against Sonora, they did what we did — spread it out and passed it on them.
“They’re very similar to us and I think it’s a pretty good match-up.”
Amador may have battled some rust following its first-round bye. No. 6 Rosemont (9-3) visited Sutter Creek last week and nearly pulled off the upset before the Buffaloes rallied for two touchdowns in the final five minutes to squeak it out, 17-7.
Amador looked to all-purpose threat Kole Alleyn, who replaced Drake behind center, to lead the comeback charge.
“They had a defensive struggle last week,” Musseman said. “Late in the game they went to an empty set and had a different kid at quarterback who ran some read-option stuff, and that caught Rosemont by surprise.”
Amador is mainly a running team that operates out of the I-formation. Running back Wes Villarreal is the workhorse behind a powerful offensive line anchored by 6-foot-5, 325-pound center Jackson Mitchell. When the Buffaloes do throw, Drake can look to a pair of tall receivers in 6-3 Lance Der Manuelian and 6-0 Augustus Gedney.
Setting the tone at the start will be key for Ripon.
“Our kids came out ready coming out of the bye,” Musseman said. “One thing I’ve liked about this group is that they come out ready to play, whereas in the past we’d start slow and it would take awhile for them to get their feet wet. This is the most focused team we’ve had at this point in the season that I can remember.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Amador (10-1) vs. Ripon (10-1)
WHAT: Sac-Joaquin Section Division V semifinals
WHEN: Today, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Stouffer Field, Ripon High
ADMISSION: $12 adults, $8 seniors (65-over)/military, $5 students (k-12), children 5-under are free