The Indians aren’t sick of football yet.
Regardless of the outcome, it all comes to an end tonight when Ripon (13-1) locks up with Highland (12-3) of Palmdale in the CIF State Division 4-AA Bowl Game. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 o’clock.
“With our group this year, they’re embracing it more than any group we’ve had in the postseason,” Ripon coach Chris Musseman said. “They’ve had a great attitude in practice, no one is complaining and we’ve also adjusted what we’re doing so it’s not such a grind.
“All this started June 1. Seven months later, we’re still talking football.”
It is indeed the longest season ever for both schools involved.
Ripon claimed its first Sac-Joaquin Section title since 1996 — and second overall — two weeks ago with a 21-13 stunner against top-seeded Center in the Division V final. The Indians then made their first appearance in a NorCal Regional, dominating Northern Section heavyweight Sutter, 31-14.
Ripon’s lone setback of the season came in Trans-Valley League play at Hilmar, where the Indians lost several of their top players to injuries and hobbled to a 38-27 defeat. They atoned for it four weeks later, trouncing then-undefeated Escalon in a 42-21 upset that forced a three-way share of the league title — the third straight for Ripon.
The Indians were not tested again until their SJS semifinal with an impressive Amador squad boasting a balanced offense, size at the line of scrimmage and a defense that had given up an average of 8 points per game.
Ripon appeared to be on its way to a third consecutive semifinal exit down 27-3 with 2 minutes remaining in the first half. A tide-turning fumble recovery from Troy Brogan, daring onside kick and outstanding play from quarterback Nico Ilardi spearheaded the Indians’ epic 34-33 come-from-behind victory.
“That Amador game woke our kids up,” Musseman said. “That is kind of a turning point in our season.”
Ripon now stands as the top Cal-Hi Sports small-schools team in the state, and is 61st in the overall CalPreps.com state computer rankings. Highland is ranked 92nd.
The Bulldogs have trekked 300 miles from Antelope Valley to Northern San Joaquin Valley for the capper to their own historic run. They’ve reached unprecedented heights in just two years under head coach Richard Lear.
Last season, Highland advanced to its first Southern Section championship game but lost to Eisenhower of Rialto 35-18 in the Division 10 final. The Bulldogs finished 13-1.
Highland has been on a roll since early back-to-back losses to St. Bonaventure and Serrano and a 25-24 heartbreaker to intra-city rival Palmdale in Golden League action. It’s riding a seven-game winning streak that includes a 24-12 win over North in the SS Division 9 championship and 42-29 win over Selma in the SoCal regional. The Bulldogs rallied to score four unanswered touchdowns in their latest triumph.
“They’re super athletic, really big and they’ve been rolling people most of the year,” Musseman said. “There’s just no way to know how we compare, it’s not like we have any like opponents. I look at them and see a Division I school in our section. They look good on film, but until you see them in person you don’t know.”
A closer look at what the Indians are up against:
BY THE NUMBERS: Highland averages 43.3 points per game while allowing 12.3, while Ripon scores 38.4 and gives up 13.3. Both teams prefer to run but have no problems chucking it to keep defenses honest. Highland passes for 160.2 per game and rushes for 192.8, which are very close to the Indians’ averages of 150.1 and 199.9, respectively.
FEATURED CREECH-ER: Ripon has had to game plan against impressive athletes, but none may compare to 6-foot-1, 165-pound running back Isaiah Creech — nicknamed “The Creature” by teammates.
He leads the Bulldogs with 2,002 yards (10.2 per carry) and 28 touchdowns but it also among their best receivers with 455 yards and eight more scores. Creech is also productive on defense at strong safety with 76 tackles and three interceptions. Oh yeah, and he’s a weapon on special teams on punt returns, punt blocks and point-after conversions.
“He’s their guy,” Musseman said. “They have a couple others who are super talented, but he’s their go-to guy.”
OTHERS TO WATCH: Damien Pecoraro doesn’t just hand it off to Creech all game. The senior quarterback can spin it too, evidenced by his 2,395 passing yards and 32 touchdowns (against nine interceptions).
And there is no shortage of big-play receivers for him to target. Joshua Clark leads the bunch with 31 catches, 591 yards and three touchdowns. Then there’s 6-6 Damarius Jamison (25-548-10), Jaycob Spiteri (26-456-5), 6-3 Darius Wilson (13-242-3) and, of course, Creech.
Wilson is also a defensive standout with 92 tackles and 12 sacks. Linebacker Daniel Brown heads the group with 142 tackles, eight sacks and six fumble recoveries.
“Even if we can take away 24 (Creech), they have two or three other guys who are game breakers,” Musseman said. “We don’t have a 6-6 cornerback, unfortunately. They just keep coming at you from different angles.”
WEATHER OR NOT: The Bulldogs are an all-weather team that forces opponents to scheme against varying formations. While light showers have hit the area throughout the week, Stouffer Field — with no rain forecasted — should be sludge-free tonight.
When the conditions are right, Highland can go to a spread offense and let Pecoraro wing it around the field. They can also slug it out in their double-wing as they did on their muddy home turf in the section final. Either way, expect heavy doses of Creech.
Ripon is accustomed to playing on grass as well, but its last two games were on artificial surfaces at Sacramento City College and Downey High in Modesto. The Indians are glad to be home for this one.
“Last week worked out well for us getting to play at Downey, but it was kind of a loss for our community,” Musseman said. “The fact that we get another game in a small town like is a big deal. It’s bringing people out of the woodwork and we’re expecting a great atmosphere for the kids.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Highland (12-3) vs. Ripon (13-1)
WHAT: CIF State Division IV-AA Bowl Game
WHEN: Today, 6 p.m. kickoff
WHERE: Stouffer Field, Ripon High
ADMISSION: $12 general, $8 children/students (ASB card)/seniors. Advanced tickets available online at gofan.co/app/school/CIF