Ripon is playing for another Trans Valley League championship.
Few thought that would be a possibility more than a month ago.
The final hurdle is a big one, as Hilmar (4-0, 8-1 overall) — the team the Indians (4-0, 6-3) shared the 2015 TVL title with — visits Stouffer Field on Friday.
Ripon started the season with a new head coach and few returners from last year’s senior-loaded squad. The Indians were 2-3 before starting TVL play, with all losses coming against premier programs. The losses to undefeated Sonora and Sutter weren’t close, leading to doubt in Ripon’s chances of reaching the playoffs.
Friday’s TVL title game has postseason implications, but coach Chris Musseman isn’t concerning himself with that. If Hilmar wins, the 2015 Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI runner-up will play up in Division V.
“Nobody thought we’d be here to be honest,” Musseman said. “At the start of the season we weren’t supposed to be playoff bound, so for us this is a big game. We’ll worry about next week when next week gets here.”
The big week started with sobering news for the Yellowjackets. Hilmar coach Frank Marques told the Merced Sun-Star on Tuesday that senior quarterback Chase Kindberg will miss the remainder of the season after tearing the medial collateral ligament in his right knee during last week’s 44-28 win at Mountain House.
Kindberg ended the season with 1,578 yards, 10 touchdowns and six interceptions on 103-of-184 passing.
Musseman said Kindberg’s absence doesn’t make things any easier for his defense, which shut out Hughson in a 34-0 victory last week and has surrendered just 16 points in four league contests. He touts Kindberg’s understudy, junior Tristan Crowley, as a dangerous runner and a capable passer.
Regardless of who is behind center, though, Musseman added that containing 5-foot-11, 185-pound running back Cody Rentfro (1,238 yards, 10 TDs) is priority No. 1. It’ll be the fourth straight week that Ripon’s defense faces a top running back in the TVL, from Modesto Christian’s Chris Brown (1,104 yards, 12 TDs) to Escalon’s Tim Costa (937 yards, 10 TDs) and Hughson’s Griffin Genzoli (1,455 yards, 20 TDs).
“We’ve had to play against some really good backs all year, even in our preseason,” Musseman said. “Our kids have really stepped up and worked on that part of our defensive game, but this kid (Rentfro) offers something different than the others. He hits the hole a little differently, has a different style of running. He’s just a different animal for us to prepare for.”
Hilmar’s only blemish is a competitive 37-27 loss to Sonora back on Sept. 16, one week after Sonora throttled Ripon, 69-7. The Indians have since improved but are embracing the underdog role Friday.
“Hilmar is 8-1 for a reason,” Musseman said. “They’ll be one of the best teams we’ve faced all year and I don’t blame anyone for picking them, we just have to prove them wrong. Hilmar is a great football team with a great coach. I expect nothing but the biggest challenge of the season.”