The area’s last team standing in the Sac-Joaquin Section basketball playoffs is breaking from its pregame routine for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI championship, which has a noontime tipoff today at Golden 1 Center.
The top-seeded Ripon Christian (22-7) boys squad is a heavy favorite to claim its 11th all-time section title as it takes on one-time champ Stockton Christian Academy (28-1), but the hour-long trip, early start time and cavernous venue may serve as an equalizer for the No. 2 Eagles.
“It is a concern,” Ripon Christian coach Mark Hofman said. “I gave the guys an early curfew and we’ll see if they stick to it. We’ll have breakfast for them and a morning shoot-around to try and get them back into rhythm. It’s not ideal but that’s the way it goes. These are just some of the mental things you have to work through.”
Hofman’s Knights are back in the Division VI final after winning it in 2018 against Sacramento Adventist at the University of the Pacific en route to a runner-up finish in the CIF Northern California Regional Championships. Last year, they competed in the more demanding SJS Division V bracket and were eliminated by then top-seeded Brookside Christian in the semifinals.
Ripon Christian is second behind Weed (19-4) in the MaxPreps NorCal rankings for the division. Stockton Christian is sixth. The Knights blew out their first two postseason opponents, Lodi Academy and Alpha Charter, by an average margin of 31.5 points on their ride to the final round.
The Eagles are coming off a 73-68 semifinal win over No. 3 Foresthill (22-7) and are on an 18-game winning streak since their lone loss, 77-74 to Delta Charter, in Mountain Valley League play.
Hofman believes that the rigors of the Trans-Valley League have prepared his team — a co-champion with Ripon — for this game and the NorCal contests to follow. He even sees similarities between the Knights’ upcoming opponent with some of their league rivals.
Hofman compares Stockton Christian to Riverbank, a team that makes up for its lack of size with tempo on both ends of the floor. The Eagles are led by third-year point guard Jay Araya, who reminds Hofman of Ripon’s Nico Ilardi. Araya averages 25.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.3 steals.
Julian Ramonett (13.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.8 steals), Zane Rodriguez (12.8 points) and Tim Barber (9.9 points, 5.0 assists) are other junior guards to watch, and like Araya they are all below 6-feet tall.
By contrast, Ripon Christian is anchored by junior guard Will Gilbert, senior wing Jacob Van Groningen and junior power forward Braden Van Groningen — all are listed at 6-foot-4.
“We watched some film on them and they move the ball very well,” Hofman said. “They are well coached and seem to understand the game very well. They set screens, they cut and get the ball into the right spots.”
Hofman added that adjustments will be made accordingly during the game, but the plan for now is to continue doing what got them to this point.
“We just focus on playing basketball the right way,” he said. “We have a defensive system and an offensive system, and we give them a lot of freedom. We play well when our guys are sharing the ball.”
No matter the result, both teams advance to the NorCal Regional and will find out their placement on the Division VI bracket Sunday evening. Also awaiting its NorCal fate is Weston Ranch, which had its SJS Division I run end in the semifinals.
“We’re excited to play at Golden 1,” Hofman said. “This was one of our goals and we were able to reach that.”
The two-day section championship event begins with the Division VI girls game between Forest Lake Christian and Valley Christian this morning at 10. The Divisions IV and II boys and girls title games follow the Stockton Christian-Ripon Christian showdown. The rest of the games will take place Friday.
AT A GLANCE
WHO: (2) Stockton Christian vs. (1) Ripon Christian
WHAT: Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI final
WHEN: Today, noon tipoff
WHERE: Golden 1 Center, Sacramento
ADMISSION: $30-40 (Kings Row I-III), $18 (general), $15 (seniors 65-over, active military), $12 (students), $12 (children 2-over), children under 2 are free