Ripon Christian has re-established itself as a force among Sac-Joaquin Section small-school powers following eight straight losing seasons.
But after back-to-back semifinal-round defeats in the SJS Division VII playoffs, the Knights are even more hungry to accomplish more. With nine returning starters complemented by a host of battle-tested underclassmen, Ripon Christian is eyeing a Southern League title and second section championship (1994, Division III).
“Our guys have had a taste of what it’s like to play in the game before the championship game, and both times they were crushed afterwards,” Ripon Christian coach Keith Terpsma said. “This year I have a core group of seniors that have been involved in both of those defeats. Coupling that with their experience and leadership skills I think they’re going to take us a long ways.”
Ripon Christian — 8-3-1 in the Southern League, 14-7-3 overall — was knocked off by second-seeded Faith Christian in a drama-filled semifinal last season. After battling to a 1-1 draw they needed two rounds of penalty kicks to decide it, with Faith Christian prevailing 9-8 in the shootout.
Seniors Kyle Colyn, Coleton Hilarides and Danny Vander Molen are back for their fourth year on the varsity. Vander Molen is RC’s top scorer in the last three seasons, finishing with 15 goals and two assists in 2013. His cousin, Travis Vander Molen, was a sophomore last year when he produced 15 goals and nine assists en route to earning a spot on the Manteca Bulletin’s All-Area Boys Soccer Team.
Senior Andrew Manes (10 goals, 11 assists) and sophomore Rian Koetsier are other capable scorers in Ripon Christian’s balanced attack. Junior Lukas Vermeulen is back to man the goal area. He averaged 6.2 saves and allowed 1.5 goals per game and was an All-Area keeper as a sophomore.
“One of the things I like to stress is that we don’t have any stars,” Terpsma said. “That means that we do have options in scoring and who we want to get the ball to. These guys have been playing together for a long time and are real confident with each other’s skills.”
Ripon Christian did lose two key players to graduation in All-SL first-team attacking midfielder Kyle Van Vuren and honorable mention outside midfielder Max Koetsier. They were the Knights’ lone seniors a year ago and served as captains.
While their leadership will be missed, Terpsma said there shouldn’t be a problem in replacing them. Among those replacements are their younger brothers, defensive midfielder Jake Van Vuren and the aforementioned Rian Koetsier. Sophomore midfielders Nick Van Vliet and Logan Van Vuren are also expected to see ample playing time.
“I’m confident with the options I have,” Terpsma said. “I liked the experience the underclassmen gained at the upper level. They got to see real competition and played against seniors, and it really improved their competitiveness.”
There should again be no shortage of competition in the Southern League. Reigning champion Le Grand also brings back the bulk of its talent, Delhi is almost always a contender and Gustine is expected to be on the rise after a down year.
“We’re anticipating to be near the top if not at the top spot in league and making it to the section championship,” Terpsma said. “But we have a lot of good teams that were also young last year, so it won’t be easy for anybody.”
Ripon Christian will spend much of the first month of the season at home. After competing in Saturday’s Hughson Husky Cup, the Knights are hosting four pre-league opponents as well as their own tournament. Then on Sept. 16 and 18, they play host to Le Grand and Delhi to begin SL play.