Ripon went up in class for the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs and stood toe-to-toe with the defending Division IV champion on Wednesday.
The seventh-seeded Indians, who had been competing in Division V in recent years, came out swinging against No. 2 Sierra, which landed big blows of its own and took advantage of late errors to escape with an 11-5 victory and move onto the quarterfinal round.
“Knowing that they won the Division IV title a year ago it can be tough to go up against coming up from Division V, and we have a pretty young team,” said Ripon senior Shay Furtado, who is heading to San Jose State. “I am really proud of my team for stepping up and not being intimidated.”
Furtado and Ripon (15-8) set the tone in this back-and-forth slugfest. She cranked a two-run homer off Nebraska-bound ace Lindsey Walljasper in the first inning and was followed by Sydney Vernon’s RBI single for a 3-0 lead.
The Indians were robbed of an opportunity widen the gap, nearly going for back-to-back jacks until Sierra center fielder Callie Crain elevated above the fence to snag Lilly Mejia’s deep fly.
“Coming in, all of my colleagues said we should go small ball on them but we didn’t go with that,” Ripon coach Robert Vernon said. “We didn’t want to get behind on the count, not swing on pitches above our hands and be aggressive at the plate.
“After that first home run (Sierra) knew they were in for a game.”
The Valley Oak League co-champion Timberwolves (16-4) hadn’t played a game in two weeks, and coach Victor DeAnda was worried his club would show some rust. Their last game was a thrilling 1-0 victory over previously-undefeated Oakdale on May 2, and they were awarded a first-round bye.
Ripon’s early flurry, however, did not get them down.
“The kids were calm,” DeAnda said. “They’ve been in these situations for the last couple of years now, so being down three didn’t really bother us.”
After taking a home run away, Crain blasted one herself. Sierra countered right away, first with Samantha Lorge’s run-scoring single. Crain then clubbed a three-run shot to left to give the Timberwolves the 4-3 lead.
“Yesterday I was hitting well in batting practice and my coach was like, ‘You better be hitting a home run tomorrow,’” Crain said. “I was just trying to get on base any way I could.”
Crain finished 2 for 4 and drove in the final run of the game with a double in the sixth.
Four of the 16 hits left the yard.
In the fourth, Ripon freshman pitcher Sydney Thomason fell behind in the count 0-2 before taking Walljasper’s next offering to deep left for two runs and a 5-4 advantage for the Indians. Walljasper (2 for 3, walk) later got her revenge, tagging a two-run shot in the sixth.
“If I’m not hitting my spots and doing what I need to on the defensive side I have to come through on the offensive side,” Walljasper said.
Walljasper wasn’t as dominating as she was in her last outing against Oakdale, striking out six, walking three and scattering nine hits. Thomason settled down after her rocky start and finished with six strikeouts and seven walks while allowing seven earned runs on seven hits.
Sierra grabbed the lead for good in the bottom of the fourth thanks to aggressive baserunning and a throwing error.
With two runners on, Walljasper reached on an infield single — her hard-hit grounder glanced off the gloves of third baseman Mejia and shortstop Furtado — and baited the Ripon defense into a rundown that allowed Desiree Mejias (leadoff single) to score. Walljasper eventually committed to second base and made it safely on a throwing error that allowed both her and Mia Guevara (three walks, three runs) to sprint home.
Crain plated another unearned run in the following frame, reaching on an error and scoring while Lisette Mejias was caught in a rundown after hitting a single.
“We’ve been aggressive all year and it just forces teams to make plays,” DeAnda said. “It just so happens today they couldn’t make some of those plays and we capitalized on them.”
Sierra’s next opponent is a familiar one. The Timberwolves will tangle with VOL foe and No. 6-seeded Kimball (12-11-1) at Arnaiz Softball Complex on Friday starting at 5 p.m. The Jaguars set themselves up to avenge their two regular-season losses to Sierra by upsetting No. 3 Liberty Ranch (19-5), 9-8.
“I don’t like facing teams three times because they get to know you a lot better,” DeAnda said. “The VOL is tough and it has shown in the playoffs.”
It was far from a disappointing finish for Ripon, the 2016 Division V champion that wound up in third place last year.
“We’ve played some decent teams and on any given day we can play with anybody,” Vernon said. “There are times we can play ball, and there are times our inexperience shows.
“Our sophomore class is loaded and we’ll have some good leadership coming back,” he added. “We should be set for three or four years. We might have turned a corner there as a team. Playing toe-to-toe with a team like that gives us a lot of confidence next year.”