With nine freshmen on its 2017 roster, Ripon Christian is poised to be a factor in the Southern League and Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs for years to come.
While the influx of young talent certainly propelled the Knights to new heights, it was the leadership and all-around ability of Katie O’Leary who helped steer the program in the right direction.
The Ivy League-bound infielder is the first Ripon Christian player to earn the Manteca Bulletin All-Area Softball MVP award, securing it with an astounding performance in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII playoffs.
She batted .818 (9 for 11) in the four postseason contests, driving in nine runs, plating nine and slugging three doubles and two homers. The Knights trounced Stone Ridge Christian 14-3 in the finals for the school’s first section crown in the sport.
For the season, O’Leary hit for a .566 average and a 1.118 slugging percentage. Nearly half of her 43 hits went for extra bases (eight homers, 10 doubles, four triples), and she racked up 46 RBIs and 54 runs. She’s heading to Brown University in Providence, R.I. where she’ll play the corner infield spots.
“For me, it wasn’t so much a ‘me’ thing,” O’Leary said. “Just being able to represent my school and lift up (the section banner) for them was real special. The school can say, ‘Hey, we’re good at softball, too, not just basketball or volleyball.’
“It meant so much to see the parents, staff and alumni there with us.”
The program has come a long way since Lenny Rizzuto took over as head coach three years ago. The Knights made their first postseason appearance in 16 years, finishing 22-7 overall this past spring. Their win total doubled the output from Rizzuto’s first two seasons.
O’Leary attended a charter school her freshmen and sophomore years before transferring to RC. The team’s remarkable turnaround started in 2016. The Knights finished 8-13, marking just the second time since 2005 that they’ve won that many games.
Lacking pitching options, Ripon Christian turned to O’Leary, then a junior, to be its workhorse in the circle. She considers herself “an infielder who can pitch,” but was more than willing to handle an unfamiliar role for Rizzuto’s inexperienced bunch.
“It was hard at first,” O’Leary said of adjusting from highly-competitive travel ball to a small-school that historically hasn’t attracted softball athletes. “But there was a sense of hope because we knew we had some freshmen coming in who were also good players.”
Pitcher Madison DeGraaf and catcher Elizabeth Thomas are part of that special freshman class that bolstered a club lacking upperclassmen. Fourth-year starter Emily Van Vliet was the team’s only other senior.
With DeGraaf toeing the rubber, O’Leary was allowed to play shortstop fulltime for her senior campaign.
“I think it was really helpful in the distribution of athletes,” O’Leary said of the influx of freshmen. We were very strong in the middle — our catcher was great as was our pitcher, we had shortstop and second base covered and our center fielder was also strong. We were able to defend more easily and it honestly made a huge difference.”
Ripon Christian ended up tied for second in the Southern League with Waterford and had far more competitive games with traditional power Mariposa than in years past. Mariposa ran the table in the SL en route to a runner-up finish in the SJS Division V bracket.
O’Leary and the Knights elevated their game for the playoffs. Seeded first in Division VII, they easily dealt with Langston Hughes Academy and Valley Christian in 20-0 and 15-1 blowouts, respectively.
Ripon Christian had some trouble getting through Stone Ridge in the first of two meetings between the them.
O’Leary was the difference in the winners-bracket semifinal.
Ripon Christian trailed for the first time in the postseason until O’Leary blasted a solo jack to tie it at 1-1 in the fourth inning. Then in the bottom of the sixth, she drove in Thomas with a double and the Knights held on for the 2-1 victory.
“It’s hard to explain,” O’Leary said. “You always want to perform well, but it’s a different mindset when you have to do it and for some reason that set in and clicked with me. So, when I got up to bat I gave myself no option. I said, ‘You’re going to hit the ball and hit it hard,’ and thankfully my body listened.”
The rest was history.
Stone Ridge knocked off Valley Christian 5-2 later that night in the consolation semifinal, earning a second shot at Ripon Christian. The rematch wasn’t close, and RC put the finishing touches on its sterling season with a five-run rally in the bottom of the sixth to enforce the mercy rule. O’Leary reached base and scored four times and tagged her second home run in as many days.
“It’s very humbling to have helped the school make history,” she said. “It’s honestly not about me. Maybe I did one thing here or one thing there, but the fact we were able to accomplish something as a team and a school is a blessing. It’s more about that than any personal gratification.”