RIPON — Travis Vander Molen looked at his tragic knee injury as a blessing in disguise.
On Monday, Ripon Christian’s multi-sport standout signed his national letter of intent to continue playing baseball for nationally-ranked Westmont College.
His pivotal junior year on the diamond never materialized after he suffered tears to the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee during the basketball season.
“You sit there, go through all the therapy, lay in bed and wonder, ‘What am I doing this for?’” Vander Molen said. “You have those doubts, but it’s just knee surgery. It’s not anything worse like cancer, that’s the outlook I had. It’s part of God’s plan to have that surgery. It was just one year, and God still gave me a chance my senior year to go out and play and give it a shot.”
Vander Molen worked his way back into game shape during his final season of basketball and had the opportunity to display his skills at a one-day camp hosted by Westmont over the winter. Two weeks ago, Warriors coach Robert Ruiz offered his prize recruit a scholarship.
Under Ruiz, Westmont made its first appearance in the NAIA Tournament in 2014 and finished a program-best 41-17 in 2015. The team is currently 35-7, ranked seventh in the NAIA and tops the Golden State Athletic Conference standings with a 20-4 record.
Vander Molen said the team’s success was a draw for him. The Warriors have produced 10 NAIA All-Americans and last year had three players selected in the Major League Baseball draft.
Westmont is a Christian liberal arts college in Santa Barbara. Vander Molen plans on studying secondary education and kinesiology to teach physical education and coach.
“It’s a small, private school, and the academics part was also important to me,” Vander Molen said. “I got it all covered and it just felt like a great fit.”
Ripon Christian coach John DeVisser said that Westmont just landed another big-time player in the sturdily-built 6-foot-2 corner infielder. He pointed out that former big leaguer Greg Vaughn, previously an assistant coach for Bradshaw Christian in Sacramento, compared Vander Molen to a left-handed Scott Rolen when he was just a freshman.
“They’re going to get a middle-of-the-lineup guy — he’s going to be a dude,” DeVisser said. “But it’s like I told them, I can talk to you all about that stuff, he’s character plus. His faith is real to him, he was coachable and you’re not getting one of these fake kids. He’s going to show up, he’s going to compete his tail off and he’s going to play the game the right way. Oh, and by the way, he’s really good.”
Vander Molen is making the most of his return so far, putting up what DeVisser describes as “videogame numbers.” He’s batting .600 with three homers, 12 doubles, two triples, 24 RBIs and 19 runs to go with a gaudy 1.846 on-base/slugging percentage — all team-highs. The Knights are 12-5 and share the Southern League lead with Gustine. Vander Molen also sports a 1.69 ERA with 57 strikeouts over 29 innings.
“Definitely had time to get into the weight room,” Vander Molen said. “Watching the game for a whole year, you get that extra hunger in you and I think that’s coming out a little bit.”
Vander Molen excelled in every sport he played. As a freshman, he was called up for the varsity football team’s postseason run, and two years later he helped Ripon Christian win capture its first Sac-Joaquin Section boys soccer title since 1994. He was also a key member of three league championship squads in basketball.
“I love baseball the most,” Vander Molen said. “I like all sports, but baseball is just a step ahead. Being able to focus on just baseball will help a lot. That’s another thing I’m excited about.”
His big day was also a proud moment for DeVisser, a longtime friend of the family. Vander Molen got to sign in front of his friends, family, teammates and coaches on the school’s varsity baseball diamond before practice Monday.
“His mom taught me in grade school here, and he came to some of my games when I played at MJC (Modesto Junior College) when he was a kid so we go back a long ways,” DeVisser said. “I’ve been working with him since he was probably 11 or 12, and a lot of it was just staying out of his way. We’d tweak something here and there, but as far as overhauling it, it was never a question of that. The kid just has raw, natural talent. It was more about not messing him up as opposed to fixing him.
“I’ve known the kid his whole life, and to be here for this is just special. It’s emotional.”