It had to be Joel Van Groningen who sealed Ripon Christian’s biggest win in the short history of the boys volleyball program on Thursday.
The 6-foot-4 junior outside hitter punctuated his monster effort with a scoring spike to an open corner of the end line, sending the Knights to their first-ever California Interscholastic Federation Division IV NorCal Regional final. They knocked off No. 4-seeded Lincoln of San Francisco, 25-23, 25-23, 14-25, 25-23.
Ripon Christian (27-1) will get to host the championship match Saturday starting at 6 against No. 3 Lowell (25-10), which defeated Lincoln in four games for the San Francisco Section title last week.
“It’s awesome for a school our size make it to the championship,” Van Groningen said. “I just love playing volleyball, so it’s fun getting this far.”
Van Groningen slugged a season-high 24 kills and six aces, often coming through with clutch points when his team needed them. He also closed out the tightly-contested opening set, notching two kills for the Knights’ final two points.
“He’s putting us on his back, and that’s something he had to work into,” Ripon Christian coach Kevin Tameling said. “We didn’t have a lot of games that were tight this year, so he didn’t have the opportunity to do that. Joel was on fire tonight.”
He caught fire from the service line to help the Knights steal the second game. Spearheaded by impressive 6-7 outside hitter Michael Shelley, Lincoln staked a 7-0 lead behind his four kills and a block.
Tameling called a timeout, and Ripon Christian responded with a kill from Van Groningen, who then went to the end line and torched the Mustangs for three straight aces with his powerful jump serves.
“(Van Groningen) went back to serve and railed off all those aces right off the bat,” Lincoln coach Vince Tang said. “That gave them a little bit of momentum and it was neck-and-neck after that. We still had our opportunity to win, but we just could not execute in the end.”
Van Groningen tallied back-to-back kills to tie it at 21-21, and freshman middle Walker Postma pushed the Knights ahead with a kill of his own. Reif later gave them game point with a kill, and Griffin de Abreu sealed it with a solo stuff against Shelley.
Reif contributed 10 kills for Ripon Christian. Setters Justin Hofman and Preston Zuidervaart handed out 23 and 14 assists, respectively.
Shelley paced Lincoln with 28 kills and three blocks.
“We haven’t really met any big hitters like that and a team that can defend like that, except for maybe Lathrop,” Van Groningen said. “We had to settle in and figure it out as we went.”
Lincoln was also forced to adjust to Ripon Christian’s length from antennae to antennae. Postma stands at 6-8, de Abreu is 6-5 and Reif 6-3.
“That other team over there has a lot of size,” Tang said. “We have a big guy, too, but overall they have a lot more size. We preach ball control, playing smart, doing what we need to do, and when we have our opportunities let ’er rip.”
Lincoln never trailed in the third set, using an 11-2 run to take command while Ripon Christian struggled with unforced errors.
In game 4, the Knights appeared to be on their way to taking over in similar fashion, going up 17-13 after Reif put away overpass. To its credit, Lincoln did not go away easily and managed to tie it on four occasions until the final point.
“Proud of the way they fought,” Tang said. “We didn’t come here to lose, we came here to win. A couple points didn’t go our way, we didn’t execute and do the little things, at times, but the effort was there and that’s all we can ask.”
Tang added that he respects Ripon Christian for quickly establishing itself as a powerhouse in just five seasons, two of which were shortened by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m extremely proud of the guys,” Tameling said. "I didn’t really know what we had coming into the season and coming off a couple of weird years. Some guys really put in work in the offseason and improved their game, but we also have some guys who have about 20 matches in their lifetime just playing this year that are out there playing big, big minutes for us.
“We have alumni out here that helped start this thing. This is for them, too. They helped get it to this point.”