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SOFTBALL: Knights ground Eagles to begin title defense
Ripon Christian shortstop Rylie Nunes is able to snag the errant throw as Elliot Christian’s Madi Sepp slides safely into second base. - photo by JONAMAR JACINTO / The Bulletin

RIPON — At this point last year, Ripon Christian was making its first Sac-Joaquin Section postseason appearance in 16 years.

Now, the Knights are on a mission to defend their Division VII crown.

“There definitely wasn’t as many nerves as there was last year,” Liz Thomas said.

Ripon Christian’s sophomore slugging catcher drove in three runs in the opening round Monday, and Madison DeGraaf tallied seven strikeouts in a one-hit shutout as the second-seeded Knights crushed Elliot Christian 12-0 in five innings.

They took a first big step in their title defense. The tournament now shifts to a double-elimination format starting with the quarterfinal round Wednesday at Arnaiz Softball Complex in Stockton.

“Probably a little more than half of this team has been there, so now we’re saying why not go back-to-back?” Ripon Christian coach Lenny Rizzuto said. “Last year was the first (title) for us, and we want to get a first one for the newer girls on the team.”

Ripon Christian’s on a seven-game roll and finished as the runner-up in the competitive Southern Athletic League. The Knights (17-5) had five batters with an at-bat in every turn at the plate, totaling 12 hits that include four doubles. 

Thomas went 2 for 3 with a two-run double in the second, helping RC stake a commanding 2-0 lead. DeGraaf also had an RBI double in the inning, and she was able to work out of jams in the pitcher’s circle to keep the Eagles (5-11) out of reach.

After striking out the first two batters of the game, DeGraaf hit Bailey Correa with a pitch and allowed a single to Annabelle Sepp before inducing a soft grounder to end the threat. In the third, Elliot Christian’s Madi Sepp (error) and Lexi Jucich (fielder’s choice) reached to start the inning. Kelly Engel made a nice grab deep in center field for the first out, and DeGraaf escaped with two more groundball outs.

“Our team today probably put together one of the three best games that they’ve played all year,” Rizzuto said. “They just came out and here and balled. They were serious but still having fun. They were out here cheering but they were more focused and in the game.”

The Knights were especially locked in at the plate. Leadoff hitter Sarah Brown reached in every at-bat, finishing 2 for 4 with a pair of doubles, four runs and an RBI. Nicole Chapman drew three walks and plated three runs before ripping a two-run single in the fourth.

Morgan Van Elderen went 3 for 4 with two RBIs, swinging at every first pitch she saw. Rylie Nunes ended 3 for 3 with two runs from the No. 9 spot.

“Our approach is always to be aggressive,” Rizzuto said. “We’ve been working on hitting a lot. We had to stop about halfway through the season because we had to focus on defense. Once the errors stopped and the defense got better we’ve been able to balance it out.”

Ripon Christian hopes to put it all together again Wednesday when it faces off against No. 6 Big Valley Christian (9-13), the third-place team out of the Central California Athletic Alliance that stunned Sacramento Metropolitan Athletic League champion and third-seeded Valley Christian (16-4), 5-4. 

The game is scheduled to start at 5 p.m., and the winner gets No. 1 Stone Ridge Christian (15-8) and No. 4 Foresthill (9-7) in the semifinal on Thursday.

Ripon Christian defeated Stone Ridge Christian last year for its first section crown in softball.

“In all honesty, it’s not really that different, you just have to take each game one step at a time and play like it’s your last or your first,” Thomas said. “We just have to play with that same intensity.”