Highland's speedier athletes and bulkier linemen couldn't keep Ripon down.
Even Mother Nature tried.
Pounded by an unexpected rainstorm and unpredictable gusts, the Indians drove down to the red zone and set up the ever-reliable Nathan Valdez for a 36-yard field goal with 28.4 seconds remaining in the CIF State Division 4-AA Bowl Game.
Valdez delivered a textbook kick, as he has before in big-game situations. Ripon then sealed the breathtaking 31-28 victory and its first state title on the ensuing kickoff when Adam Wood forced a fumble recovered by Austin Bonilla.
Quarterback Nico Ilardi kneeled out the clock, and the celebration was on at Stouffer Field and the City of Almonds.
“To be able to do this in front of a community that has never done anything like this, it's unbelievable,” running back/linebacker Grant Wiebe said.
It was Wiebe (19 rushes, 61 yards) who did the damage early for Ripon (14-1), scoring on touchdown runs of 17 and 7 yards. The lead ballooned to 21-0 moments after Danny Hernandez's 37-yard interception return with 5 minutes, 36 seconds left in the second quarter.
The Bulldogs (12-4) of Palmdale then scored 22 unanswered points and jumped ahead in the third quarter, as explosive running back Isaiah Creech (21 rushes, 153 yards, TD; three catches, 32 yards) and 6-foot-6 receiver Demarius Jamison (five catches, 156 yards, TD) got untracked.
“We don't see that in the TVL (Trans-Valley League),” Ilardi said. “We don't see a 6-6 receiver who can run like wind. It's a testament to how hard we work all year despite being undersized and not as fast.”
Joshua Clark contributed two short-yardage touchdowns in Highland's comeack surge, and it was his 3-yard scamper that gave his team its only lead with 6:03 to go in the third quarter.
“Our kids came out of halftime a little shell-shocked,” Ripon coach Chris Musseman said. “Thank God for Nico Ilardi, because we kind of turned it over to him a little bit and said you have to go get the guys back.”
Ilardi (10 of 20, 120 yards) wasn't as sharp as he had been in recent weeks but came through in clutch situations Saturday, completing six straight at one point including a pinpoint over-the-shoulder touch pass to Troy Brogan for a 15-yard touchdown and 28-22 Ripon lead.
Highland responded with its best possession of the game, taking 7:20 off the clock and tying it on Creech's 14-yard run. The score remained 28-28 after quarterback Daniel Pecoraro (10 of 20, 204 yards) had his conversion pass intended for Jamison get batted down by Bonilla.
Ripon got the ball back with 4:09 remaining, and Valdez was already visualizing the kick to come.
“The wind was messing with my mind a little bit, and the ball was wet so I was worried that would mess up the snap,” Valdez said.
Caleb Johnston and Ilardi did their part as snapper and holder. The rest was up to Valdez's strong and steady right leg.
“Knowing that I made the game-winning kick for the state championship is as good a feeling I could ever have,” he said.
The air was still and the field was dry all night until midway through Ripon's deciding drive, which was boosted by a defensive pass interference on third-and-5 in Highland territory. After two incomplete passes and a 2-yard run, Ripon called a timeout. So did the Bulldogs, hoping to ice the kicker.
Valdez said he wasn't fazed by the delay, and he had the faith of his teammates.
“I had 100 percent confidence in him,” Ilardi said before recalling last year's regular-season finale at Modesto Christian where Valdez drilled the game-tying and winning field goals in the closing minutes to help the Indians clinch a share of the TVL title.
“We talked about maybe running a fake or something but we were like no, we know what Nate can do and we're going to let Nate kick. He's been there, done that. We already knew he could do it. We had all the trust in him.”
Cornerback Mason Knight led the defense with 10 tackles, lineman Caleb Delgado had two sacks and Bonilla wound up with two fumble recoveries for turnovers.
Ripon doesn't mind sharing the spotlight on this historic occasion. About 13 miles away, TVL counterpart Escalon routed La Jolla 52-21 for the Division 4-A championship and its second CIF crown overall. The Indians have head-to-head bragging rights over their oldest rival this year and are likely to remain as the top-ranked small-school team in the state, according to Cal-Hi Sports.
Ripon can now join Escalon (2010, 2019), Modesto Christian (2008) and Hilmar (2018) as state champion out of the TVL, which has long been considered the toughest small-school league in California.
“That's awesome to hear,” Ilardi said. “It just shows how good of a small-school league the TVL is. In the Valley, at lot of people underestimate us a little bit, but for one league to bring home two state titles on the same night is pretty big, in my opinion.”
Highland 0 14 8 6 — 28
Ripon 7 14 0 10 — 31
R—Grant Wiebe 17 run (Nathan Valdez kick), 0:20.7.
R—Wiebe 7 run (Valdez kick), 6:59.
R—Danny Hernandez 37 interception (Valdez kick), 5:36.
H—Joshua Clark 5 run (run failed), 2:11.
H—Demarius Jamison 59 pass from Damien Pecoraro (Terrance McAllister run), 0:23.6.
H—Clark 3 run (Clark run), 6:03.
R—Troy Brogan 15 pass from Nico Ilardi (Valdez kick), 11:35.
H—Isaiah Creech 14 run (pass failed), 4:15.
R—Valdez 36 field goal, 0:28.4.