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SPRING IN THE AIR
Start of baseball, softball seasons near for VOL
Bulletin sports 2020-21
Sierra infielder Brendan Rapisura applies the late tag on Ripon’s Sean McCann during their non-league meeting at Islanders Field in Lathrop on March 10, 2020. - photo by JONAMAR JACINTO/The Bulletin

Ready or not, here comes baseball and softball.

The traditional high school spring sports will soon be underway, even as football goes into its third week of play in the Manteca area while the start of basketball, soccer and water polo looms in the very near future.

Some spring sports such as boys tennis and swimming are nearing the end of the Valley Oak Leauge's “Season 1” schedule. The track and field season is at the starting blocks as it begins next week along with baseball and softball.

“Not having a preaseason schedule and walking into the VOL is really tough,” Ripon Chrisitan coach John de Visser said. “No one has enough time for preseason games. Normally you can work out the kinks in four to five games but that's not there for us this year. We're not dipping our toe in the pool, we're diving right in.”

Ripon, Ripon Christian and Escalon have joined the VOL for the academic year, deepening an already competitive pool of teams. De Visser and his Knights had high hopes to repeat as Southern Athletic League champions and vie for a Sac-Joaquin Section title for 2020, but spring sports were cut short by the coronavirus pandemic less than a month into the season in mid-March. 

Ripon and Escalon arrive from the Trans-Valley League, known more for its small-school powerhouse football teams. Escalon has made a name for itself on the diamond, however, claiming three SJS Division V championships in five final-round appearances since 2010.

Ripon Christian earned its first Section banner for baseball in 2018, doing so in Division VI. Now, they're pitted against VOL schools that play in the more competitive Divisions III and IV. 

“Obviously, the depth is going to be much greater on the mound and on the field,” de Visser said of the opponents to come,” They're going to be able to get into their bench. Even the best teams the Southern League go about three to four pitchers deep, but in the VOL they go six or seven deep and 10-11 deep of legitimate bats to get through.”

Sierra reigned in 2019 under then-first-year coach Travis Thomson, as the Timberwolves managed to go undefeated in league and finish 21-4-1 overall. Central Catholic, Oakdale and Manteca joined them in the playoffs, and every VOL club made it out of the opening round and before going down swinging. Central Catholic made it to the D4 final before falling to Los Banos, while Oakdale finished third in D3.

The VOL is a league of champions for softball. 

Oakdale capped its outstanding 2019 campaign with the VOL and SJS Division III crowns. Meanwhile, Ripon rolled to TVL and SJS Division IV titles before it as named Cal-Hi Sports Division IV Team of the Year. Escalon also earned a Section championship at Division V. Ripon Christian made it to the Division VI final and lost but proved it could compete at that level after winning back-to-back in Division VII.

East Union and Sierra have garnered their own SJS titles in recent years and expect to remain competitive. Manteca and Kimball have also been consistent contenders for playoff berths.

There are no postseason spots or league titles on the line for 2020, however. For the small-school guests, this is an opportunity improve.

“We just gotta get better,” de Visser said. “We'll play for the present, but we're also looking to the future. There are no championships, no playoffs. That's just the reality of this year.”

Softball starts in the VOL with games next Monday and Wednesday. Two-game sets for baseball are Tuesday and Thursday. Final contests are in the last week of May.