It was in defeat that Robert Vernon realized he had a special group of players in front of him.
Flashback to the Ripon High’s final game of the 2018 season when his Indians came up short 11-5 in a second-round slugfest at Sierra, the eventual two-time Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV champion led by Lindsey Walljasper. She now pitches for Nebraska as a true freshman.
Vernon was not discouraged — quite the opposite.
One year later, his vision turned to validation. Ripon has been recognized as one of the best teams in California.
On Tuesday, the Indians were officially named Cal-Hi Sports Division IV State Team of the Year. It’s the fourth spring-season program from the area to earn a mythical state crown in recent years, joining the likes of East Union’s 2015 Division III softball team, Manteca’s 2014 Division III baseball team and Sierra’s 2013 Division IV softball team.
Vernon credits the loss at Sierra for serving as the springboard for Ripon’s historic 2019 campaign, which ended with a program-best record of 24-2. His young 2018 club, thrusted into the tougher Division IV bracket for the first time while its Trans-Valley League counterparts remained at Division V, was not intimidated by the more-heralded Timberwolves.
Ripon staked an early 3-0 lead and stood toe-to-toe with the defending champ, which surged ahead in the later innings.
“This all started last year when they moved us up to Division IV and we went to Sierra,” Vernon said. “At that point in time the girls knew that we can play. This is exactly what I said to the girls, ‘I don’t know if you realize it, but we’re going to have a really good team for a couple years.’
“Since the first practice this season we have set very lofty goals. We did not only want to win league, but we wanted to come up with a blue banner. We talked about it every single practice.”
He just didn’t want any mention of a possible state championship.
This was brought to his attention last Thursday after Ripon clobbered Calaveras 16-6 in the mercy-shortened SJS Division IV winners-bracket semifinal. Cal-Hi Sports had just released its weekly divisional rankings hours before first pitch, placing Ripon at the top of the Division IV table.
Essentially, one more win over Calaveras, which came back to beat Liberty Ranch in the consolation semifinal, was for two titles. Ripon prevailed 7-3 for its second SJS banner, the first coming four years ago in Division V.
“We found out the night before the championship game we moved up to No. 1, and I told our coaches that I didn’t want to tell the girls,” Vernon said. “Then it came out on Twitter and one of my captains sent me a copy of the tweet. I told her not to tell the rest of the kids and she said, ‘Too late, coach.’
“Well, I didn’t want us to talk about it and the next day not one kid said a peep. They knew in the back of their minds that we’re not only playing for a section title but kept their focus all the way through.”
Ripon had many highlights leading up to the section championship. Its run includes three wins over Calaveras, the outright Mother Lode League champion that was Division IV runner-up to Sierra in the prior two seasons. The Indians earlier battled back to topple Calaveras 10-9 in eight innings during the NorCal Classic in Tracy, where Vernon collected his 200th career win.
Ripon also had a thrilling 9-8, extra-inning victory over then-reigning TVL titlist Escalon in the league opener. Escalon went on to capture its third straight SJS Division V pennant.
The Indians nearly ran the table in the competitive TVL but was stunned by Hilmar 7-1 in their regular-season finale. They previously trounced Hilmar 11-0 in six innings.
“I didn’t sleep for three days, but in retrospect that was probably a wake-up call,” Vernon said. “We played in all these high-intensity games and then we go into Hilmar with league already wrapped up. It wasn’t really a game that meant anything. Anytime these girls played a game that meant something they stepped up.”
Ripon’s other loss came at the hands of Fresno State-bound Lexi Webb and powerhouse Oakdale. The Mustangs (29-1-1) shut out the Indians 4-0 in the NorCal Classic, seized the SJS Division III championship and was Cal-Hi Sports’ pick for Division III State Team of the Year.
Norco (Division I), Cypress (Division II) and East Nicolaus (Division V) were also honored by Cal-Hi Sports.
Ripon has come a long way since 2007 when Vernon took over a team that won just once the year before.
“I want the kids to get recognized,” said Vernon, noting that he has already had his glory playing for a national champion men’s fastpitch team in 1998.
“I tried to build this from scratch and it has been a love affair with the school ever since. It’s a small school with great kids and the Quarterback Club has been outstanding. The support from everyone, including all the parents, is overwhelming. I don’t see myself coaching another high school program.”