EDITOR'S NOTE: With the rest of the California Interscholastic Federation sports season canceled because of the Coronavirus outbreak, the Manteca/Ripon Bulletin is running a series of features honoring the top senior athletes of the spring.
This isn't the ideal ending for Ripon Christian's Class of 2020, but the senior members of the softball team will be remembered for what they started at the small school better known for its successes in other sports.
The ringleader of this special group is Elizabeth Thomas, the happy-go-lucky catcher with an angry stroke. She and the Knights reached three consecutive Sac-Joaquin Section finals, winning two of them in Division VII. The school had never before competed for a section banner in the sport.
“There's a lot of talent at our school for different things, not just volleyball and basketball,” Thomas said. Her sister Katie, a 2012 graduate, was also a softball standout at the school. “It's exciting to be able to achieve great things and see our hard work pay off.
Last season, they claimed the Southern Athletic League championship — it's only the second all-time conference crown for the program (1993) — which forced them to play up in the more competitive Division VI. Ripon Christian held its own, knocking off Argonaut 4-1 in the consolation semifinal before falling to Woodland Christian.
While disappointing, the championship loss was a motivating tool for a team that did not graduate a single player in 2019.
“That was our main goal all year. We've been talking about how badly we wanted to get back to that division championship game,” Thomas said. “We wanted to go out this year winning both the league and section title since we haven't done that (in the same season). We knew we were capable of it and wanted to prove that.
“I wish things could have turned out differently but it didn't and that's OK.”
Ripon Christian went 66-18 during this remarkable three-year run under Lenny Rizzuto, who stepped down after spending the past five seasons as head coach. The team started 2020, with former assistant Steve de Graaf now in charge, winning two of its first three contests before the season was shut down. The lone loss was to rival Stone Ridge Christian, the reigning SJS Division VII champ.
Thomas needed only the three seasons to sprinkle her name all over the record books and she had a 2019 for the ages, earning the All-SAL Most Valuable Player award. According to MaxPreps, she led the entire state with 73 RBIs which ranked her at No. 14 nationally. Her astronomical stat line included a .609 batting average, 1.163 slugging percentage and 12 home runs.
Thomas was looking forward to living up to the expectations she placed on herself.
“It was a personal challenge for me,” she said. “I knew how high I set the bar, but I wanted to try and go above and beyond that. I looked at last season as a challenge to see how much I've grown since last year.”
She was slow to start, by her lofty standards, in 2020. She was 5 for 12 (.417 average) at the plate with a double, a triple and seven RBIs.
Future Knights will be hard-pressed to match Thomas' astounding career totals, even with the truncated senior season — .527 average, .631 on-base percentage, .883 slugging, 136 hits, 17 homers, 39 doubles and 155 RBIs. And in 333 plate appearances over 77 games, she struck out only 13 times while drawing 50 walks.
Thomas didn't only carry the big stick for the Knights; she also called the pitches from behind the plate and doesn't make too many mistakes (.990 fielding percentage, two errors in 2019). Coach Rizzuto placed total trust in his battery, which also featured 2020 classmate and all-league pitcher Madison de Graaf.
Thomas loved the responsibility along with the relationship forged with the ace hurler over the years.
“Communication is key between a pitcher and the catcher,” Thomas said. “I would know what's working and what's not working, and we'd talk about how she's feeling about her pitches. We were able to communicate with each other without using words, it was about knowing body language and facial expressions.
“You can't always rely on a coach because I have the best view of what's happening to the pitch and what the batter is doing. It makes it more fun, in my opinion.”
Thomas and her teammates are of course heartbroken to have their final months together snatched away. Infielders Sarah Brown, Morgan Van Elderen and Ariel Vander Woude are other four-year varsity players on the team. Rylie Nunes is a three-year player, while Rebecca Postmus was in her second season.
The good news for Thomas is this isn't the end of her softball journey, which takes her to Nevada, Mo. She has committed to playing for Cottey College, a private women's university that was admitted to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in 2018. Prior to that, the Comets were a Midwest powerhouse in the National Junior College Athletic Association ranks.
“I just love the fact that it's a part of my life that I'm able to carry on for four more years,” said Thomas, who will major in biology. “I've been playing for a really long time and it's so exciting to get more opportunities to play. I'm looking forward to the new challenge of playing at the collegiate level.”