RIPON — Le Grand players and coaches took turns slapping Andrew Brown’s shoulder pads and shaking his hand down the midfield stripe at Stouffer Field on Friday night.
It didn’t stop during an interview with the media.
One player, a reserve by the looks of his unsullied white jersey, interrupted. He meant no disrespect. His intentions were to give respect to one who has left his mark among the Sac-Joaquin Section’s best-ever running backs.
“Good game, sir,” he said with an extended hand.
“Hey, have a good season and finish strong,” Ripon Christian’s Brown replied.
Another, this one an older man decked out in Le Grand’s green and gold, later jumped in.
“Hey, good job. You are a great opponent.”
“Thank you, it means a lot,” Brown said.
Never mind that Brown had rather modest stats — most of his 121 rushing yards were gained in the fourth quarter — compared to the monstrous numbers he has put up this year. Or that the Bulldogs came to town and put a 47-14 whooping on Brown’s Knights in what was the Southern League’s championship game.
Ripon Christian earned it, even in defeat.
It showed in the way Ripon Christian’s little community came out in support of the team. It wasn’t long ago that many of RC’s own were not on board with the upstart program back in 2003. At that point, the school’s tradition was in volleyball and basketball.
“We’ve come a long way, and I think it’s an awesome thing to be a part of,” said Brown. “This school is still not a football school but we’re getting there. I really enjoy being on the teams that are making it a football school.”
Brown is a huge part of the team’s changing culture. He can tell you all about players of Ripon Christian past, ones he grew up idolizing. He became part of the history as one of the first players to join the Ripon Knights youth feeder program. Brown is a true Knight, having been a Ripon Christian student as a kindergartener.
“I still think that my brother Michael scored the Ripon Knights’ first-ever touchdown and I scored the third,” Brown said.
Speaking of touchdowns, Brown added to his SJS record total of 113, which also catapults him into the state’s all-time top-10 list, according to Cal-Hi Sports.
That Ripon Christian is playing meaningful games this late in the season is saying something. Two of the program’s former head coaches were there on the sidelines Friday — Jeremy Byrd (2005-06) and John Vander Schaaf (2007-12). It was Byrd who led RC to it’s first-ever varsity championship in 2005, when the Knights finished 5-0 in the Mountain Valley League.
Ripon Christian then toiled in the Trans-Valley League from 2006-09, competing — or at least trying to — with some of the state’s top small-school squads.
Last year, Vander Schaaf was co-head coach for RC’s tri-championship in the SL. The team across the way Friday night didn’t forget. Le Grand was celebrating senior night on Nov. 2, 2012 and its on its way to capturing sole possession of the league championship …
Ripon Christian’s startling 35-21 win ended that thought, and the Bulldogs’ 28-game conference winning streak.
“They kind of snuck up on us last year,” Le Grand coach Rick Martinez said.
Martinez made sure that his team would give Ripon Christian the respect it deserves.
“I’ve said for a while now that the league has gotten weak, but they’ve added to it and it’s good for us,” Martinez said while nodding his head in the direction of RC’s postgame huddle. “They’re going to continue to get better and force us to step up and play ball.”
Randy Fasani, Ripon Christian’s first-year head coach, will see to it. The former Stanford quarterback and Carolina Panther started out as the Knights’ offensive coordinator two years ago, and Vander Schaaf named him co-head coach in 2012.
“When I started at Ripon Christian I didn’t accept mediocrity,” Fasani said. “I wanted the kids to set their goals high — to win Southern League and section championships. We’ve stuck to that.
“Tonight, Le Grand took it to us. We didn’t achieve our first goal, but we can still achieve our second goal.”
A very attainable goal, too. With Le Grand favored to win a fourth straight section championship in Division V, Ripon Christian will have that same distinction in the less competitive Division VI.
“Le Grand got beat last year by us and they came out strong for the playoffs,” Brown said. “I think we’re going to do the same thing.”
They have come a long way indeed.