Erin Cutino inherited an experienced team with Sac-Joaquin Section championship aspirations this past summer.
Today, the first-year Ripon head coach will lead the top-seeded Indians (22-4) in their first section title-round appearance in six years at Tokay High in Stockton where they’ll meet a familiar foe in Trans-Valley League rival Hilmar (23-12), the No. 2 seed in the Division IV tournament. The match is scheduled to start at 2:30 p.m. Ripon is vying for the program’s fourth section banner.
“Adrienne Beltrami did such an amazing job with the team the last six years and she’s one of my best friends,” Cutino said. “She asked me to take on this role because I already knew the girls so well. It was already a jelled unit and nothing had changed; there was a reason why they were a top team going in and I just wanted to uphold that.
“There was a lot of pressure but at the same time I knew what the girls were capable of and they had every tool do it.”
The Trans-Valley League champion is on a tear going into the finals. Ripon has won 10 straight and made quick work of Orestimba, Calaveras and Bear River in the postseason.
Hilmar, which claimed the previous three TVL crowns, also has some momentum going after climbing back from a 2-0 deficit to beat upset-minded No. 3-seed Bret Harte, 20-25, 23-25, 25-21, 25-19, 15-8.
Ripon won their first regular-season meeting on Sept. 22, 25-14, 25-19, 26-24. The rematch on Oct. 18 lasted four games, with the Indians prevailing on the road, 25-17, 25-16, 20-25, 25-16. Cutino wouldn’t be surprised if it went the distance the third time around.
“Obviously, the third time a team sees you they know your weapons, they know what you come with and they can be better prepared for you,” Cutino said. “They have a great team and we have a lot of respect for them. If we don’t have a great game they have the ability to take us down, so we’re not taking them lightly at all.
“I think my girls are ready and they’re motivated, but they know how motivated Hilmar is.”
The Yellowjackets have just three seniors but aren’t lacking in experience. Leading them are third-year junior outside hitter Mariah Ahid, 6-foot freshman middle Olivia Peterson, junior setter Hannah Pearse and senior defensive specialist Miranda Gray.
Ripon counters with Central Connecticut State commits Samantha McCreath and Ashlyn Eisenga, who play outside hitter and libero, respectively. Six-foot-1 middle blocker Breana Barrios has committed to Western Montana. Setter Lauren Weibe and the aforementioned trio were unable to get past the semifinal round the past two years, but there wasn’t much of a celebration after Ripon did so with a one-sided sweep of Bear River on Tuesday.
“We went right into film breakdown (on Wednesday) and right into practice the next day,” Cutino said. “These girls are very calm and focused. They’re not about celebrating these wins along the way because they have laser focus on the end prize — they want the blue banner.”