ESCALON — Not too many predicted Ripon High to make it this far.
After all, some had predicted early on for the Indians to finish fifth in the Trans-Valley League.
They had some bright moments during the season, finishing with 4-2 mark in league play — good for a second-place tie with Hilmar — yet sputtering in the regular season finale with an 18-13 loss to Hughson.
And then came the playoffs.
No. 5-seeded Ripon, with a revamped lineup, scored Sac-Joaquin Section V victories over Ceres (39-13) and Woodland (39-20), setting up the much-anticipated rematch with top-seeded Escalon on Friday.
The Cougars dashed the Indians' postseason hopes with a 34-10 win in the semifinal game at Engel Field.
"It hurts," Ripon coach Chris Musseman told his team in the aftermath. "You should still be proud."
Caleb Johnston agreed.
"It was a great experience to see this team grow," said the senior running back and middle linebacker.
He was coming off a three-TD performance at Woodland.
Johnston and senior lineman Colin Speed had unprecedented careers for the Indians filled with highs and lows.
Both were starting sophomores for the 2019 state championship team.
Last year turned out to be a shoddy spring season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Ripon finished 0-3 with two games being called off because of COVID.
This year, the Indians were 0-2 to start the season — the second game, a non-league game against Sonora, was postponed twice due to the wildfires and played on a Monday.
They eventually turned their fortunes around by making several changes to the lineup.
"We got better along the way," said Speed.
He cherishes his memories suiting up for Ripon High. Speed and Johnston grew playing the game with many on this team, dating back to their time with the local youth football Chiefs,
"It's hard to see it end this way," said Speed, who is looking to continue playing at the college level.
Added Johnston: "I'm proud of how this team came together."