Could a changing of the guard be in order in the Southern League?
First-year Ripon Christian head coach Trey Ozenbaugh doesn’t think so.
His Knights are among the three SL teams who remain undefeated. Not included are the league’s two traditional powers, Mariposa and Le Grand (both are 1-2), the reigning champion and winner of the last four Sac-Joaquin Section Division V titles.
Ozenbaugh believes things may have gotten more crowded in the race for the championship. Ripon Christian toes the starting line with SL newcomer Orestimba representing its first test. The Warriors, who come from the more competitive Trans-Valley League, were a one-win team a year ago but is off to a 3-0 start in 2014.
“This is a big game from the standpoint of every team wants to win their league opener,” Ozenbaugh said. “Oresitmba is a great challenge for us as a team and coaching staff to gauge if we are truly improving at the pace we should be. I expect an increased level of competition throughout the Southern League this season.”
Also 3-0 is Gustine. Gustine, Orestimba and RC have a common opponent in Linden, which provided each with stiff competition in well-contested defeats.
Friday’s battle of unbeatens is setting up to be a doozy, featuring two dynamic quarterbacks with different strengths. Ripon Christian’s Billy Marr is more of a traditional pocket passer who has been complemented well by breakout star Brian Sytsma (410 rushing yards, 7 TDs).
Orestimba is led by Joe Sheldon, who is as much a threat on the run (443 yards, 6 TDs) as he is throwing (348 yards, 77.4 completion percentage, 4 TDs). Fellow junior Austin Martins, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound running back, averages 121.3 rushing yards.
“Impressed with Joe Sheldon,” Ozenbaugh said. “We must do a great job of containing him, and when he does run limiting the big plays he creates with his legs. The best way to contain him is to keep their offense on the sideline.”
Orestimba has size and experience at the line of scrimmage. The Warriors also outman Ripon Christian, 47-20.
“Their depth is obviously something we don’t have,” Ozenbaugh said. “That’s a challenge with most of our opponents.”
It doesn’t get any easier for Ripon Christian after Friday. Up next is a trip to Le Grand for a rematch of last year’s Week-10 championship game dominated by the Bulldogs. The father-son duo of head coach Rick Martinez and RB/LB Ryan Martinez are no longer there, but Christian Williams returns as the SL’s most exciting player.
Ripon Christian’s games with Mariposa have also been barnburners in recent years. The Bears visit Ripon Christian on Oct. 31 in what could be the championship bout. Le Grand and Mariposa’s records are deceiving; they had tougher non-league schedules than the rest of their SL rivals.
“I really think there are some quality teams in the Southern League this year,” Ozenbaugh said. “Le Grand and Mariposa are certainly still teams to watch closely. Gustine and Delhi (2-1) seem to be playing some good ball, as well.”