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Cal-Hi Sports names Ripon Christian top D5 team in state
Ripon Christian baseball
Ripon Christian with its second Sac-Joaquin Section championship banner earned on May 23 when the Knights defeated Turlock Christian 11-3 at Islanders Field. - photo by SEAN KAHLER

John de Visser has coached Ripon Christian’s baseball team through all of its greatest achievements in 13 years, and the program has just added another.

The Knights have been named the Cal-Hi Sports Division V State Team of the Year after claiming the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII championship and making their first appearance in the NorCal playoffs.

It’s the fifth spring sports team from the area to receive the honor, following Sierra softball (Division IV) in 2013, Manteca baseball (Division III) in 2014, East Union softball (Division III) in 2015 and Ripon softball (Division IV) in 2019.

“Stunned,” de Visser said. “I got a phone call and a text from a coaching friend of mine, and he basically said, ‘What’s it like to be a state champion?’ I didn’t know what to say, because I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was flabbergasted.

“I honestly shook for the next hour trying to figure out what that actually meant. We’ve always been struggling for this, but to actually get there is something different. It’s a tremendous honor that these kids have earned, and I’m glad to help them through that.”

Four of the 10 baseball and softball teams awarded by Cal-Hi Sports are from the SJS. Joining Ripon Christian are Division III Central Catholic in both sports and Capital Christian for Division IV softball.

Ripon Christian won a share of the Southern Athletic League title and finished with a 23-8 record, breaking the program record for most wins in a single season. The Knights set new team and individual records in many statistical categories, such as most runs scored and stolen bases.

SAL MVP Dustin Hoekstra registered a tidy 0.71 ERA, the new single-season low in program history, while leading hitter Grant Sonke set new records with 55 runs scored and 40 steals to go with his team-best .455 batting average.

Three-sport star Eli Terpsma — he also helped lead RC to SJS titles in football and basketball this academic year — was another key across-the-board producer.

“As far as on the field and between the lines, this group is as good as any I’ve had in 13 years,” de Visser said. “I’ve always considered 2010, 2016 and 2018 to be my best teams, and this team, in my mind, is the best group I’ve ever coached. It just so happens to be the most impactful and character-driven group I’ve ever been around, and those things go hand in hand.”

Ripon Christian was able to achieve its successful season despite missing its top returning power hitter. Corner infielder Jacob Kowes, who will continue his career with The Master’s University, did not get to play in his senior campaign because of devastating knee injuries suffered during the football season.

“He’s a D1 (Division I) player,” de Visser said of Kowes. “It’s a testament to the guys that took over for him. We set all these records without Jake, but we had to have 2-3 guys step up in his absence to get to where we are.

“And we didn’t have Hoekstra on the mound the last five weeks of the season, and he’s an all-time arm,” de Visser continued. Hoekstra did get bat in every game down the stretch, but a sore elbow kept him from pitching.

“He’s going to play college at a high level. He pitched about 2 2/3 innings the last five weeks, so everyone else on the mound and the field had to step up. From taking two out of three from Woodland Christian, to the Section final and the NorCal playoffs, the boys just kept doing it, and it was by committee.”

Seeded No. 3 for the SJS playoffs, Ripon Christian knocked out No. 2 Woodland Christian in the best-of-three semifinal series before taking care of standout pitcher Gavin Farinha and No. 1 Turlock Christian, 11-3.

Ripon Christian avenged an early-season loss to TC and split with Le Grand and Mariposa in SAL play. The rest of the Knights’ losses were to much-bigger schools, including semifinal foil Lowell of San Francisco in the California Interscholastic Federation Division V Northern Regionals.

Lowell edged out the top-seeded Knights 7-6 and went on to beat University, also of San Francisco, 4-0 in the title round. Lowell, with about 2,800 students, is too large to be considered for Team of the Year honors at Division V. Cal-Hi Sports noted that all SoCal qualifiers in the lowest division were also larger schools.

CIF’s “competitive equity” model oftentimes matches up small schools versus large in the state playoffs, but Cal-Hi Sports still heavily enrollment for its rankings.

With few graduation losses, including Micah English, who hit a two-run homer on his final at-bat in the NorCal semis, de Visser expects for his team to remain competitive in the coming years.

For now, he’ll bask in the latest — and most unexpected — accolade.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would get to this point,” de Visser said. “I’ve always known it’s possible with the kind of athletes we have at RC, but to have it realized is another thing.”