Tiger Shelton figured it wasn’t going to be easy.
His Ripon Christian volleyball team has only made it look that way.
Since the Knights captured their fifth straight Sac-Joaquin Section title in Division V last year, Shelton wasn’t sure how they would stack up in the far more competitive D-IV bracket with 6-foot twin middles Mikaela and Morgan Algers graduating.
So far, so very good.
Fourth-seeded Ripon Christian (26-6) takes on No. 1 Escalon (25-5) tonight in the SJS Division IV semifinals, and the team is arguably playing at a higher level than it had at any point during its fantastic 2011 run.
“Or any year previous,” RC’s ninth-year head coach said after last Thursday’s impressive 3-0 sweep of Ripon. It was the first time the rival schools squared off in a postseason match.
After No. 12 Ripon shocked No. 5 Summerville in the opener, it wasn’t crazy to think the Indians could hang — perhaps even beat — RC. That was not the case.
Now, the club representing the smallest school in Division IV may be a big favorite to earn its section-leading 16th SJS title.
“Our whole season is all about here and now,” said Shelton, who has led the Knights to three straight undefeated campaigns in the Southern League. “All of the stuff in the beginning doesn’t mean anything, but what we work for is to try and get better for the playoffs.”
While its league is considered to be weaker than the one (Trans-Valley) it left after 2009-10, Ripon Christian is battle-tested at this point thanks to a brutal nonleague schedule that includes a four-game upset of Division II semifinalist Rocklin and a three-set loss to Division I semifinalist St. Mary’s. The Knights haven’t dropped a single game in a standard best-of-five match since the defeat at St. Mary’s on Sept. 4.
Ripon Christian then saw some of the state’s best — in some cases some of the nation’s best — at the prestigious Harbor Tournament (Santa Cruz) and Panther Challenge (San Jose). Shelton was encouraged by his team’s showing in both tournaments despite its combined 3-5 record at the two events.
“We try and play at their pace,” he said. “There are girls there going to Stanford and UCLA — it’s hard, we get our lunch handed to us. But our belief here is that iron sharpens iron and you’re going to get better.
“We said it a few times during those tournaments, ‘We’re going to lose a few games today, but try to compete and try and to keep up with them.’”
Ripon Christian will try and keep up with an Escalon team that resembles itself in some ways. Both teams are undersized, with no player taller than 5 feet, 10 inches in tonight’s match. And while both squads have their go-to hitters — Kristy Van Diver for RC, Cassidy Caton for Escalon — there are several others that opposing teams must keep an eye on.
“We’re multi-dimensional,” Shelton said. “We’re running offensives extremely well, and if Andie (his star setter and daughter) gets the good passes that she’s been getting we’re really dangerous.”
The winner in Escalon will play for a section title Thursday night at 8 o’clock at UC Davis. Second-seeded Bear River (28-12) hosts No. 3 Sonora (28-7), co-champion of the Valley Oak League, in the other semifinal.