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Small-school Knights sweep Lowell of SF in Division IV final
Lowell-Ripon Christian boys volleyball
Josh Miller (3) begins to celebrate with Zach Varni (10), Joel Van Groningen (7) and Walker Postma (20) celebrate the final point of their NorCal title-clinching win over Lowell on Saturday. GARY JENSEN/

Ripon Christian played its best volleyball at the end of the season and now has the hardware to show for it.

The top-seeded Knights took care of San Francisco Section champion Lowell in three sets on Saturday, 25-11, 28-26, 25-22, to capture the California Interscholastic Federation Northern Regional Division IV title.

They finish with an impressive 28-1 record that includes Southern Athletic League and the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championships. Their lone blemish was a five-game setback at Lathrop, the

Lowell-Ripon Christian boys volleyball
Ripon Christian coach Kevin Tameling holds up the California Interscholastic Federation Division IV Northern Regional championship plaque toward the spectators after the Knights defeated visiting Lowell of San Francisco in three sets on Saturday. GARY JENSEN/
reigning SJS Division III champion that had a perfect record until dropping its NorCal Division III semifinal to Oakland powerhouse Bishop O’Dowd.

After the loss to Lathrop, Ripon Christian escaped with a five-set win at Trans-Valley League champion Livingston. The team only lost a single set in the six matches since.

“I’m so proud of these guys,” Ripon Christian coach Kevin Tameling said. “We started late because of basketball, so I thought it was going to be a short season, but it kept going on.

“I didn’t know what we had coming into the season, and these guys definitely stepped up. They really jelled in the end of the year, not just in the way they’re playing, but as a team coming together and having fun together. It was pretty cool to watch.”

A big reason for the breakthrough was the emergence of two freshmen who were called up in the middle of the season to replace key starters. Josh Miller took over at libero, and 6-foot-8 Walker Postma added to an already towering front line after senior Silas Vander Woude went down with a season-ending ankle injury.

“Josh Miller really stepped up this year, and we had to bring in another freshman in, Walker Postma, who had to get adjusted to the varsity level of play,” Tameling said, adding that he had lost his “rock” and “vocal leader” on the court with Vander Woude’s injury. “Obviously, he’s got some size, but he had to figure out what to do, where to go and how to play with these guys.”

Postma had his most impactful match of the postseason on Saturday, contributing four kills and three blocks. Miller also played a big role in keeping balls in play. Lowell’s big hitters, such as Oliver Lawrence (four kills, three blocks), were mostly neutralized by RC’s height at the net and scrappy back row.

“We’re a little bit taller than normal, we don’t usually have teams this big, but we know that whenever we go out of SF there are going to be teams that are way taller,” Lowell coach Joshua Jung said. “The ball is the same size and the net is the same height, we still play the game the same way.

“It’s a matter of how well we can play defense. We gave ourselves a chance in the second game because we played well defensively. If we don’t it looks more like the first game.”

The opening set went in a flash, as Ripon Christian’s front-row standouts got untracked early.

On three successive points, Joel Van Groningen had two kills and combined with Postma for a block to give RC a 4-0 lead. The All-Sac-Joaquin Section First Team selection finished with 19 kills and two aces.

Middle blocker Griffin de Abeau (six kills, three blocks) and outside hitter Josiah Reif (15 kills, two blocks, three aces) also made their presence felt in that dominant first game.

“We just came off a tough match against Lincoln.,” setter Justin Hofman said, referencing the club’s four-set victory over the SF Section runner-up in the semifinals. “We were ready, and we wanted it. All of my hitters did a good job today.”

Hofman tallied 28 assists, two kills and two blocks. Preston Zuidervaart chipped in with 14 assists.

Lowell (26-11) looked like a different team for the rest of the match but missed a big opportunity to even the score in Game 2. The Cardinals appeared to be on their way to taking the set when a service error from RC gave them a 23-19 lead.

“It’s tough, because you want to get one early and sort of quell the momentum from that first game,” Jung said. “It was just a couple points. It wasn’t like they were just giving it to us, we were taking it to them.

“Wish we could have taken that one. That could have changed how the match went, or at least make it look better on paper.”

Van Groningen and Reif spearheaded that late surge for Ripon Christian. Van Groningen registered two kills and an ace, while Reif had two kills as the two teams tied it on four occasions. Lowell fought off three set points until it ended with a net violation.

“With hitters like No. 7 (Van Groningen) and No. 25 (Reif), you just hope to slow them down, you don’t quite stop them,” Jung said.

Against Lincoln, the Knights fell behind 7-0 in the second game but chiseled their way back to win, 25-23.

“We talked in between sets about how they’re here for a reason,” Tameling said. “They started picking up balls and got a lead in the second one, but our guys, all year long, in the moment where they needed to step up they did. You saw it going back to the match on Thursday, and today we had another tight one in the second set and won it 28-26. We finish well. These guys are finishers.”

Ripon Christian carried the momentum into the third game and staked a 9-4 advantage, but Lowell did not go down quietly. The Cardinals came back and even took a 19-17 lead on back-to-back aces from Lawrence.

Van Groningen came through for three tying kills and ended the match with another. Postma also made a pivotal play, putting RC up 23-22 after stuffing Lawrence at the end of a riveting rally highlighted by two digs by the back row.

This matchup between big-city public school and small-town private — Lowell has about 2,775 students against RC’s 200 — may be rekindled sometime down the road, as both teams return much of their core players.

“We wanted to push this as far as we could with the team we have now,” Reif said. “We’re going to be strong again next year.”

Vander Woude is Ripon Christian’s lone senior. Reif, Hofman, Van Groningen and de Abreu are all juniors. The school’s girls volleyball team has a long and storied history, and the boys, who just finished their fifth season, are set up to have the look of a powerhouse in the making.

“It’s exciting,” Tameling said. “We had some big crowds the past couple of nights, saw some people we haven’t seen around Ripon Christian volleyball for a while. Everybody has been exposed to it and they’re seeing men’s volleyball and what it looks like and what it can be.

“We have a lot of kids who are interested in playing next year and most of our players are coming back, but we’re going to have these expectations now and that’s OK. These guys just love the game of volleyball.”