RIPON — Ripon Christian players jumped off their seats on the sideline and joined the five Knights on the court to celebrate their clinching of the Trans-Valley League outright title Friday night.
Travis Vander Molen, with a brace supporting his left knee, gingerly walked toward the group but played a bit role in the jubilation. Yet there is no mistaking how much Travis, injured knee and all, means to the squad.
“Hey!” Ron Vander Molen twice barked in Travis’ attention as both teams — the foil being visiting rival Ripon — lined up for the customary handshake. Ripon Christian’s head coach, and Travis’ uncle, wrapped him with a meaningful embrace. It was a reminder to young Travis that he is still very much part of the team.
Later, teammates helped Travis up a ladder, saving the biggest piece of the net for him to cut down and wear around his neck like a conquering hero. They completed a season sweep of Ripon with a 55-44 victory in their return to the TVL captured the crown in this conference for the first time since 2001. Ripon Christian’s boys and girls basketball teams competed in the Southern League the past four years.
The Knights (8-1, 18-5 overall) hold a two-game lead with only tonight’s home tilt with Hughson left on the regular-season schedule.
“With Travis going down it left some doubt and the guys really stepped up, especially tonight,” coach Vander Molen said after Friday’s win. “I’m really proud of them. I’ve seen it so many times that when a player goes down teams aren’t the same. We’re different but we still made it happen.
“If we would have not won it I think Travis would have felt bad. And he’s had enough to deal with.”
Travis severely damaged his knee in a league game at Hughson on Jan. 30. Three days later, MRI results revealed that he had sustained ACL, MCL, meniscus and cartilage tears. Bone bruising delayed surgery, now scheduled for March 12.
“The first couple of days were rough,” Vander Molen said. “Once it set in I just decided to take it step by step, that’s all you can do, is little steps at a time. Once you get to surgery all the rehab starts and we’ll go from there.”
Ripon Christian has had to rehabilitate its game with its best overall player and one of the area’s top all-around athletes sidelined. The versatile Vander Molen was averaging 11.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
In their first game without the 6-foot-2 wing, the Knights overcame a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter to knock off upset-minded Hilmar, 48-41. Three days later Riverbank dashed their hopes for a perfect run with a 70-60 triumph.
They’ve since won back-to-back games and are looking to build momentum for a possible run to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V postseason finals. With the team’s core trio of Austin Alger, Danny Vander Molen and Sean Broker leading the charge, different role players have come through in different moments since Travis’ injury. On Friday, it was the post tandem of Jake Schollenberg and Lukas Vermeulen who earned the praise of coaches and teammates.
“I’m happy for all them, all the guys who played and contributed,” Travis Vander Molen said. “It was a great team win. Everyone chipped in at some point.
“They’ve overcome some adversity the last couple of weeks. Everyone stepped up and the result is this.”
Vander Molen still finds ways to contribute, providing another voice from the sidelines during practice sessions and games. Broker said the team has rallied around its fallen teammate, using him as a source of motivation and inspiration. Players have decorated their shoes and shoelaces with a verse from the passage (Isaiah 41:10) and the initials “PFT” (playing for Travis).
“It means a lot that he sticks around and helps in practice,” Broker said. “He’s a big part of us. We still have him in the middle of our circle cheering for us. He helps drives us.”
Vander Molen will miss the entire baseball season this spring and soccer next fall when he begins his senior year. This past November he helped Ripon Christian win the SJS Division VII banner and was the team’s leading goal scorer for the season.
The injury is a blow to every team he plays for and, for the time being, his college prospects. An athlete’s junior year is his or hers most important in the recruiting process and the three-sport standout excels most in baseball. Vander Molen aims to be back at full strength by the start of the next basketball season.
“It’s definitely a setback, but looking at the positives it’s not my senior year,” Vander Molen said. “I’ve gotten a lot of support from a lot of different people and that’s helped out a lot.”