The hardest part of the schedule is over for Ripon’s football team.
When was the last time an Indians team could say that after pre-league play? Considering that they play in the traditionally-tough Trans-Valley League, likely never.
Ripon is coming off a bye week that was preceded by a rough 1-4 start to the season. It kicks off TVL action with Hilmar (2-3), another team looking to put its non-league results behind it.
“The bye came at a perfect time for us this year,” Johnson said. “We threw our kids right in the fire this year and used the week to recover physically and mentally and to address areas of need that appeared as the preseason wore on. The kids are refocused and ready to start what we are calling the ‘second season.’ The first one is behind us.”
As are the best opponents in its rugged schedule. That’s saying something when longtime powers Escalon, Hughson and a talented Modesto Christian squad loom in the coming weeks.
Ripon began the season with a forgettable 54-7 zero-week loss to still-unbeaten Sierra, which has established itself as a championship contender in the ultra-competitive Valley Oak League.
Losses to Western Athletic Conference and Mother Lode League favorites Patterson (4-1) and Sonora (5-1) followed. The Indians ended the gauntlet with another blowout loss to Sutter (5-0), a Northern Section juggernaut with CIF Regional Bowl Game aspirations.
The one bright spot was a 45-25 win at Lathrop, which looks even better now after the Spartans took defending VOL champion Manteca to the brink of defeat last week.
All in all, it was an eye-opening experience for the young Indians, who graduated their top offensive and defensive playmakers last spring.
“The preseason forced our young kids to adapt very quickly to not just varsity football, but a high level of play,” Johnson said. “It forced us to learn to be more physical, to play faster, and to focus on the details of the game. When playing talented teams you can’t take one thing for granted or they will exploit every mistake.”
The good news is that the postseason is still very much in play for Ripon. The bad news is that there is now little room for error. The Indians’ hunt for a top-two finish and automatic berth begins with Hilmar.
The Yellowjackets upended Ripon 33-21 en route to earning the 2013 TVL championship last year. They were 13-0 before losing to eventual small-school state titlist Central Catholic in the final round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs.
Hilmar has won three out of four against Ripon since rejoining the TVL in 2010, and 5-1 going back to 2004.
“The reason we scheduled our preseason the way we did was to prepare us to compete in the TVL, and Hilmar is one of those teams that sets the standard in our league year after year,” Johnson said.
Both teams were competitive in losses to Sonora, which squeaked out a 30-27 triumph at Hilmar on Sept. 12 before holding off visiting Ripon 35-23 a week later.
Like Ripon, the Yellowjackets graduated much of their 2013 talent but both return their quarterbacks. Third-year signal caller Jonathan O’Brien (815 yards, 8 TDs, 6 INTs) doubles as Hilmar’s leading rusher (262 yards, 2 TDs) and has a new favorite receiver in 6-foot-2 Hudson Harris (309 yards, 3 TDs). The graduated Tyler Robinson racked up 1,038 yards and 15 touchdowns as Hilmar’s top receiver last year.
“Hilmar has a lot of tradition and is extremely well-coached,” Johnson said. “They have been one of the best programs in the section for more than 30 years. They play fast and physical and don’t make a lot of mistakes. Their quarterback is as good as there is and they have a talented receiver in (Harris).”
Ripon next hosts Riverbank (1-4) but doesn’t have it any easier after that, as road games at Modesto Christian (4-1) and Escalon (3-2) ensue. The regular season ends with Hughson (4-1) visiting Stouffer Field.
Modesto Christian, while low in numbers, isn’t low on size and speed at the skill positions. The Crusaders put themselves on the map with a one-point loss to Sacramento small-school power Capital Christian (5-0) and a surprising 28-6 win over Vanden (3-2).
It’s understandable why Modesto Christian is viewed by many as the favorite in the TVL. Mike Parsons is back as head coach after leading the Crusaders to a 15-0 finish and a state championship in 2009. He left for Clovis West, where he was 22-25 from 2010-13.
“I would have to say MC is the team to beat this year,” Johnson said. “They have a talented group of seniors and a nice blend of size and speed. As far as the rest of the league it is anybody’s guess. I think anyone could beat anyone else on any given night.”