After pulling off a big upset win on the road, Ripon is awarded with … an even longer road trip against a team that has knocked off the perceived favorite in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V playoffs.
Half the battle for the No. 7 Indians (8-3) today will be the 2 1/2-hour bus ride covering 108 miles to Grass Valley. There, No. 6 Bear River (8-3) of the rugged Pioneer Valley League awaits.
The distance and travel time double last week’s trek to San Andreas, where Ripon stunned second-seeded Calaveras, 28-13. The good news for the Indians is that they’re 5-0 away from Stouffer Field, and their previous three contests were on the road with each expedition increasing in length from the previous one.
This one, however, should present them with their most daunting challenge yet.
“The long trips are tough,” Musseman said. “It’s really hard to be that much out of your routine, sitting on the bus for that long while trying to keep the mind and body focused and ready to play. It’s definitely an advantage for (Bear River), but our kids have handled travel well this year.”
Both teams have reasons to be supremely confident going into this semifinal match-up. Ripon is riding a four-game winning streak that began with its thorough 32-14 beatdown of Trans-Valley League rival Escalon, the No. 2 seed in Division VI. The victory ultimately forced a three-way share of the league title with Escalon toppling Modesto Christian a week later.
The Indians’ confidence is soaring even higher now following their statement win at Calaveras.
“It was huge for the confidence to be able to move the ball against a good defense and slow down a good offense that put up a lot of points this season,” Musseman said. “It was a good, stiff challenge for us, and the kids rose to the occasion. Hopefully we can do it again.”
A win tonight pits them against No. 1 Sonora (9-2) or No. 5 Colfax (8-3) for the championship and a CIF NorCal Bowl Game berth on Nov. 25. Ripon has five title-game appearances, the most recent coming in 1996 when the Indians defeated Mariposa for the program’s only section pennant.
Bear River, which owns a pair of SJS championships, is looking to make a third section final in the last four years. The Bruins toppled PVL rival Colfax for the Division V title in 2014 and beat Ripon on the road in the first round en route to their runner-up finish to Sonora in 2015.
The current Bear River group is feeling good about its chances. Following a 5-0 start, the Bruins dropped three of their next four in PVL play and needed a 35-27 overtime win at Center in Week 10 to advance to the postseason. They proved worthy of their spot in the playoff opener, dominating over defending Division V champion Capital Christian, 26-7.
Ripon did well to stuff the run-oriented offenses of Escalon and Calaveras but will have more of the field to cover against the Bruins’ multi-look attack.
They have a productive speed-power combo in the backfield in Stephen Taylor (444 yards, 10.3 per carry, six TDs) and 6-foot-1, 230-pound fullback Austin Baze (490 yards, eight TDs). Calder Kunde (480 yards, three TDs) and 6-3 sophomore Tre Maronic (339 yards, five TDs) are the top targets for quarterback Luke Baggett (1,195 yards, 10 TDs, five INTs).
“They’re a good, well-coached team that is much more multiple on both sides of the ball than in the past,” Musseman said. “They run a little bit of everything (on offense) — empty (backfield), Wing-T, double wing, pro, trips. I think a lot of it is the nature of the league that they’re in. They play against some really good teams that are outmanning them, so they’re having to do a lot of stuff to stay competitive.”
His Indians yearn to compete for at least one more week.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, and at point in the season usually there are a few guys ready for football to be done,” Musseman said. “It’s a grind, but our kids are loving it right now, the team chemistry is great and I couldn’t be more happy with where they’re at mentally. The kids feel good about playing anybody right now.”