Nick Sharp could feel the shadow cast and left behind by arguably the most gifted golfer to play for Ripon High’s tradition rich boys program.
Sharp was a freshman last year when he heard the legends.
“They told me all the stories about how Andrew Bonner made this shot and that,” Sharp said. “We had a very solid team without him last year, and we only came up a stroke short at (the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V Tournament).
“But I could definitely sense that something was missing.”
Bonner transferred to Central Catholic following his sophomore season in 2011. Last year’s Ripon team lost four of its top six regulars to graduation.
This is supposed to be a rebuilding year for seventh-year coach Chris Musseman. Hilmar was the runaway preseason favorite in the TVL and the Division V Tournament.
Neither is the case.
Instead, Musseman’s Indians are in the driver’s seat to capture a third straight Trans-Valley League title and favored to earn a divisional title after two runner-up finishes by a combined five strokes.
Ripon goes into Tuesday’s TVL Championships with a 12-0 regular-season record. The Indians are outright champions if they finish no worse than second at Greenhorn Creek Golf Resort in Angels Camp.
“It’s been a fun ride,” Musseman said. “We’ve had to replace four out of our top six. I knew we had talent, but they were not as well tested as the guys we lost. It’s been real fun seeing them grow and get better.
“Usually at this time of year we tend to hit a plateau or begin to decline, but now it seems like we’re just getting better.”
Musseman credits the natural talent and hard work of the players. Four of them compete year round in junior golf tournaments. Musseman added that they are “blessed for having two facilities” — Spring Creek Golf & Country Club and Jack Tone Golf Course — where they can fine tune their game in the offseason. He also lauds the Ripon Quarterback Club for providing the team funds to compete in 18-hole tournaments that are crucial to their development.
“I’m more of a manager of talent than I am a golf coach,” Musseman joked.
But what truly separates this team from others is camaraderie.
Sharp, the team’s rising star, is great friends with senior veteran Kyle Head. Senior Jack Brierly completes the trio that has anchored this team’s surprising success.
“Me, jack and Nick have all kind of stepped up as co-leaders,” Head said. “We help each other out and give guidance to the others.
“It’s been a blast. Our team has the greatest time when we are all together, whether it’s on van rides or on the course. We do focus on our game a lot, but we’re able to have a lot of fun at the same time.”
Juniors Robby Figeroid and Nathan Suender figure to be among the top dogs next season. Senior Cole Herrin, a star on the school’s football and basketball teams, rounds out the top six.
Every successful team, however, needs its ace.
Enter Sharp, now a sophomore. He is tied for second with Modesto Christian standout Kyle Intorf on the TVL’s individual points standings, and they trail Hilmar’s Landon Azevedo — whom Sharp beat in Ripon’s final dual match of the season on Thursday.
Sharp has played golf recreationally since age 5, but this is just his second year of doing so competitively.
Indirectly, Bonner has motivated Sharp to get to where he’s at in such a short time period.
“Even though we didn’t have that one big shot like Andrew (last season), we felt like we could compete,” Sharp said. “But I wanted to step up to that position. I wanted my teammates to be able to trust me to come through for them and be that captain figure.”
Sharp has certainly done that with his play, leading Ripon to four top-five finishes in four tournament appearances. It is at these tournaments where the Indians have gained confidence collectively while competing with the likes of St. Mary’s, Del Oro and East Union — section powerhouses who compete at higher divisions.
“I like to keep us active by playing in these 18-hole events,” Musseman said. “It’s just a philosophy of mine. If we want to prepare to win league and divisionals, we need to play 18. We have a very aggressive tournament schedule to prepare for this part of the year.”
Head believes the team is ready. Ripon has many league championships, but only two (2003, 07) at the section level. The Indians have settled for second five times.
“I still have my two runner-up patches from the last two years,” Head said. “Seeing that blue banner go up in the school gym would mean the world to me.”