You’ve seen this movie before: Team of misfits overcomes competitive shortcomings to make the championship and win the respect of all despite losing the big game in the end.
Ripon High’s eight-man water polo team penned a similar script this past season, which ended Saturday with a valiant 16-15 defeat in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoff final at Woodcreek High of Roseville. The foil was Sacramento power Rio Americano — a heavy favorite with tradition, experience depth, talent and one of the nation’s best players on its side.
Both teams celebrated after the game. Together.
Roll the credits.
“Someone came up to me and said sorry. I was like, ‘Why? Look at us,’” Ripon coach Erik Zador said. “We have four underclassmen playing significant minutes and they played even with Rio, who just won their fifth consecutive (section title). Usually, the players line up after games to shake hands but they’re over there giving each other hugs. It was that kind of game.
“Nobody was disappointed. We can’t be.”
Truth is, Ripon accomplished its season-long goal by just getting there. Making a game of it was the last objective. That they nearly won it with no one available off the bench for most of the final two quarters only enhances the legend of these Indians.
Freshman stalwart Ty Wells was tagged with his third exclusion foul of the game early in the third quarter and was hence ejected. With one of Ripon’s top players in foul trouble, Rio Americano smartly attacked him while on offense.
“That happened in the Cen-Cal Tournament finals against Merced,” Zador said. “We lost Ty to injury in the third quarter and just kind of fell apart. We had the lead going into the fourth quarter and couldn’t maintain.
“On this occasion it could have been detrimental, but the boys kept fighting. That was the most impressive part, was that they did not give up at that point. I don’t know if (Wells) being in the game would have made a difference but he sure would have helped. It still could have gone either way until there was about 20 seconds left.”
Ripon’s Kole Gonzlaes buried his team-high fifth goal of the game to even the score at 15-all midway through the fourth quarter. Matt Dun blew the game-winner by freshman keeper Jacob Thompson (five saves) with 20 seconds remaining.
Rio Americano standout Ian Brady racked up six goals to lead all players. Last year, he was named to the National Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association/Speedo All-America Second Team.
Zach Scudder added four goals and three steals for the Indians. Nathaniel Gagnon and Wells finished with two goals each. Daniel Esenwein contributed a goal, two assists and two steals. Nick Gagnon also scored once.
Saturday’s showdown was actually the second of the season between the SJS Division II finalists. On Oct. 25, Ripon edged out Rio Americano 12-11 in the fifth-place game of the DeLong Tournament.
“That wasn’t a true face-off because Ian got there a little late and they were doing six-in, six-out substituting for most of the game,” Zador said. “In didn’t come out of the game the entire fourth quarter. He had about 8-10 of their goals alone, just an absolute beast.
“The important thing for us that we knew we could stay with them for at least a quarter. That gave us hope. We felt like it happened for a reason. It confirmed that we could actually compete with these guys whereas before that my whole team was afraid of Ian and that team.”
They went head-to-head with the beast and, for the second time, lived to tell the tale.
Ripon reached many milestones in its fifth season, which ended with a program-best 27-4 record. The four losses are by a combined six-goal margin. The Indians captured the outright Valley Oak League championship, and Saturday’s section title-game appearance is their first. “These guys couldn’t be happier,” Zador said. “Yeah, it would have been nice to have won, but before we even left for the game we had already accomplished what we set out to accomplish.
“What we didn’t want to do was lose by five to 10 goals; that’s not how we wanted to end the season. We wanted to prove that we deserve to be there.”