RIPON — Ripon Christian’s volleyball team had an array of athletes with backgrounds in other sports last year, combining considerable height with strength, agility and competitive edge.
It just wasn’t quite a volleyball team yet.
On Saturday, the Knights (20-2) are making history for their school and the region when they vie for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship at Whitney High in Rocklin. There, they'll take on third-seeded Bear River (25-5), a club with young talent but one that is far more established than Ripon Christian.
It's the first time a school from the southern half of the section has reached the title round.
The Knights have passed the look test in these first two years of their fledgling program with rangy outside hitters such as 6-foot-8 Cade Alger and 6-5 Jacob Van Groningen and burly middles like Drew Van Vliet and Braden Van Groningen.
Looks don't kill in this sport, however.
Although the Knights enjoyed a successful inaugural campaign, going 16-4 and finishing undefeated for the Trans-Valley League title a year ago, they were exposed in their season-ending loss, a competitive sweep, at Vacaville Christian in the quarter final round.
“Last year we had a very tall and athletic team, but we just didn't put together the volleyball skills,” Alger said following RC's four-game semifinal win Wednesday. “We didn't have that good of a defense as we do this year. We also have more diversity to our offense, whereas last year we were more straightforward.”
Two new setters have had a hand in improving the attack — first-year volleyball players Michael Kamps and Lukas Van Groningen. Kamps and Van Vliet are the Bulletin's reigning All-Area co-MVPs for football.
“There’s a big learning curve for them,” Ripon Christian coach Kevin Tameling said. “There have been some struggles early on and they’re still learning the game. Michael is a senior who came out here to be with his buddies and compete at the same time. It's a good way for him to go out his senior year. Lukas has a very high ceiling. He has done a really good job for us, and if he continues to work at it he can be one of the best setters in the area.”
Ripon Christian has installed a two-setter system with the addition of Kamps and Van Griningen, which has opened up Tameling's playbook.
“The strength of our team is our versatility,” Tameling said. “Yeah, we do have Cade Alger who is probably the most impactful player in our area, but we have other guys who step up every night.”
The Knights are riding into the section championship with a 17-match winning streak. Bear River has won 14 straight and dropped only four sets in the stretch — three of them in its last two contests. The Bruins from Grass Valley edged out second-seeded El Dorado in five games (23-25,26-24, 18-25, 25-21, 15-11) in the semifinals. They're the outright champion of the Golden Empire League.
“We don't now a whole lot about them,” Tameling said. “There wasn't a whole lot of crossover between the south and north teams during the season so you can't compare too much. Even then you still have to show and play. We'll look to identify some things early and see what they do and how they play.
“I know they have a quality team and a really good outside hitter we'll have to be ready for.”
Sophomore outside hitter Jace Rath leads Bear River with 363 kills (4.3 per set), 134 aces and 142 digs. Standout setter Weston Prosser is also a sophomore, and there's only one senior on the nine-man roster.
Bear River is also vying for its first boys volleyball title. Both teams are guaranteed to compete in the CIF State Northern California Regional Championships.
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Bear River vs. Ripon Christian
WHAT: Sac-Joaquin Section Division III final
WHEN: Saturday, May 11, noon
WHERE: Whitney HS, Rocklin
ADMISSION: Adults $10, students (K-12) $6, children 5-under free.