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.
With a state football championship and another Trans-Valley League basketball title secured this year, Nico Ilardi was ready to top off an illustrious career at Ripon High.
The boys golf team was poised not only to repeat as Sac-Joaquin Section Division V champion this spring, but to take on take on the bigger schools and vie for the SJS Masters banner and a spot in the California Interscholastic Federation NorCal tournament.
“Expectations were through the roof,” Ilardi said, the lone senior on a team bolstered by a talented class of freshmen. “We were definitely looking forward to competing for another section title, but we wanted to see how far we can go past that.”
The Indians showed what they were capable of before the affects of the COVID-19 pandemic were felt across the state.
They dusted some of the top large schools from the region to win the Hilmar YellowJacket Invitational at Turlock Golf & Country Club Invitational, then crushed defending TVL champion Escalon 207-268 in the league opener en route to a 3-0 start.
And just like that, the season was over.
“This is the best team I've had, and we've had some really good ones over the years,” Ripon coach Chris Musseman said. This is his 14th year of leading the boys golf team, and he has four of the program's five section championships.
“If we kept working hard all season, we'd have a chance to really compete at Masters,” he added. “It was the perfect storm — great senior leadership with the incoming freshmen and some key returners. I couldn't have asked for a better situation.
“This was a loss for the whole group. We're still going to be pretty good, but Nico is the perfect leader for this group and as a team we're going to miss his experience.”
Ilardi was voted Most Valuable Player by TVL coaches last year and doubled as Most Outstanding Player for finishing first in the season-long individual points standings. The Indians should still be competitive with freshmen Mason Bogetti, Chad Flory and Trent Vink, sophomores Gage Anderson and Jacob Baird and junior Kenny Johnson expected to return next year.
“I've gotten to know the three freshmen growing up, even though they're three grade levels lower,” Ilardi said. “All of our families are members at Spring Creek, but to play with them competitively as part of a team was really fun.”
It was already an eventful senior year for Ilardi.
In the fall, he orchestrated Ripon's historic run to the SJS Division IV and CIF State Division 4-AA titles, was named All-TVL Outstanding Offensive Back and selected to the Cal-Hi Sports Small-Schools Second Team. Then he helped the Indians basketball team earn a piece of its fourth consecutive league crown and made the All-TVL team for a second straight year. To top it off, he was picked as the section's CIF Spirit of Sport Award winner for the winter season, which comes with a $500 scholarship.
Musseman also coaches Ripon's football team, so he has gotten to know Ilardi and his family these past four years. Musseman is the reigning Cal-Hi Sports Small-Schools Coach of the Year.
“For me, it's really hard,” Musseman said of having his time with Ilardi cut short this spring. “As much time as we've spent together from football to golf and to summer practices, I was looking forward to one last run with him. He's a special person, he's not just great at golf. He's just a great person to be around and I enjoy his company, so I'm pretty sad about it.
“No matter what happens, the kid is going to be a tremendous success with whatever he does.”
Ilardi had already accepted that his competitive athletic career was finished following this last ride with the golf team, which only magnifies the hurt of a lost season.
While he is not counting intramural sports out of his future, Ilardi plans to focus more on academics — Ripon's Class of 2020 salutatorian is headed to Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State on a full-ride scholarship.
“It's been tough to swallow, because the last couple of months is what you look forward to the whole time you're in high school,” Ilardi said. “All the fun events, the graduation-related stuff like awards night, senior trip to Disneyland — everything that makes school really fun. It has been taken away and it's kind of frustrating, but there's nothing really you can do about it.
“It's nice to look back and pull out the letterman jacket once in a while, but it's sad for it to come to a close like this. It's been a really great time and great experience.”