Two of the Manteca area’s most versatile players face off tonight at Stouffer Field, where Ripon hosts Weston Ranch to open the season.
Nico Ilardi gets his long-awaited chance as quarterback for Ripon, replacing three-year starter and Trans-Valley League Outstanding Offensive Player Ryan Daggett. Opposite him is Atlantis Gholston, who takes over for Amier Bowen — he broke single-season passing records at the Ranch his junior year.
Daggett mainly did his damage on the ground in the Indians’ 2018 zero-week showdown against the Cougars, rushing for 177 yards and two touchdowns in the 34-0 rout.
Although the new signal callers for both squads got to fling it around a few times last season, they were needed elsewhere. Ilardi was named to the All-TVL first team as a defensive back and a punter. He was also a second-team receiver, finishing with 15 catches for 299 yards and five TDs.
“I’m glad to be back behind center,” Ilardi said. “It’s a position I’ve played since the sixth grade, so I’m pretty familiar with it. It actually helped a lot that I saw the field from the perspective of a receiver and defensive back, but to be honest I’m a lot more comfortable there (at quarterback).”
Ripon coach Chris Musseman said Ilardi would have been varsity QB as a sophomore, but then-incumbent Daggett didn’t do anything to lose the spot. An outstanding athlete who claimed hurdling titles for the track team his junior year, Daggett gave defenses fits with his running ability — he led the Indians with 743 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in 2018 — and improved accuracy as a passer (67% completion, 1,127 yards, 13 TDs).
The modified Wing-T will be used differently with Ilardi at the controls.
“Nico can do some of what Ryan did because he’s a good runner also, but he’s more of a brain-focused player who reads the defense well and throws accurate balls through tight windows,” Musseman said, later lauding his natural leadership skills.
Ilardi is also quite the golfer and a key member of Ripon’s TVL champion basketball team, earning all-league honors. In golf, he’s the TVL’s reigning MVP and Most Outstanding Player and led the Indians to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V title last spring. Musseman coaches the golf team.
On the gridiron, Ilardi will continue to play in all three phases of the game despite the added responsibilities as quarterback. While Ilardi prefers to play quarterback above the rest, Gholston feels most at home on the defensive side.
“I’m at corner but that might change sometimes (to free safety),” Gholston said. “I told our coach that I want to guard the best receiver on the other team and hopefully he lets me.”
Since Weston Ranch is low on numbers, as is Ripon, first-year coach Sal Reyes is forced to use players at multiple positions. Ilardi is a quarterback who has to play DB and punt for the Indians, and Gholston is a cover corner who is needed to make plays on offense.
“Atlantis is not only a very athletic player who is mobile and can sling it, but he’s also very intelligent and a true leader,” Reyes said. “If he had it his way he’d play on defense the majority of the time because he loves to hit people, but I told him I don’t need my quarterback to be making all these crazy plays out there.”
A closer look at Week Zero contests in the area:
Downey at East Union: The Lancers get a stern test at the outset, as they take another shot at the prolific Central California Athletic League contender.
Downey rolled 39-19 in the 2018 opener behind five combined touchdown passes from Bryce Gouker and then-freshman Beau Green. Green is no longer at the Modesto school — he transferred to Modesto Christian and Turlock — but Gouker is back for his senior season after a productive campaign (69.5%, 1,966 yards, 25 TDs).
The pass-happy Knights graduated their top two receivers but return their leading rusher in Robert Rivera (223 yards, eight TDs).
Lathrop at Manteca: Manteca looks to go 9-0 against its district rival in the first of four home games in the regular season.
It gets tougher for the next month-plus, as the Buffaloes travel to Downey, Granada and Tracy — all competitive higher-division teams. Valley Oak League showdowns with defending champion Central Catholic and perennial contender Oakdale follow.
The season opener at Guss Schmiedt Field is a homecoming for Lathrop coach Joe Pirllo, a 2004 graduate. It’s also the Spartans debut for senior quarterback Davis Raya-Ruiz, who had an superb sophomore season for Edison two years ago.
Modesto Christian at Sierra: Sierra becomes the bully in this rematch of last year’s one-sided 21-3 victory for Modesto Christian, which went on to win a share of the Trans-Valley League title and finish 10-2.
That was the Timberwolves’ first game in the newly-installed triple-option offense. They’ve become more efficient with it since and return much of their best players.
Different story for MC. Most of its stars from 2018 have either graduated or transferred, and the Crusaders underwent two coaching changes in the offseason. Brett Butler will take a 16-man roster to Daniel Teicheira Memorial Stadium.
Grace Davis at Ripon Christian: Returning head coach Randy Fasani wants his Knights to challenge larger-school programs and they’ll get a taste of it tonight.
Grace Davis competes in the Division IV Western Athletic Conference while RC is a Division VII school in the Division VI Southern League. The Spartans went 6-5 last year with one of the state’s most productive passing attacks.
They lost QB Xavier Rodriguez to graduation, but their top four receivers are back including two 1,000-yard producers in Gregory Smith and Michael Sherrod. Senior signal caller Elijah Diaz takes over the spread offense.