BUFFS CHASING ELUSIVE NORCAL WIN
Expectations remain high for SJS D2 champs despite an even more challenging scheduleBy JONAMAR JACINTO The Bulletin
Coming off its fifth Sac-Joaquin Section championship in six seasons, Manteca expects no less than to be in contention for another despite its changing circumstances.
Florida State signee Blake Nichelson is gone, and the Buffaloes put together what is likely their most challenging non-league schedule yet.
“We always say the faces change, but expectations don’t,” Manteca coach Mark Varnum said. “We let the kids know Superman isn’t here to save us this year. We have to be a complete team. We’ve got the dudes who can step up and definitely get it done.”
Led by Nichelson, the most sought-after prospect to ever come out of the Manteca area, the Buffs charged through their first foray in the SJS Division II bracket since the 2001 team captured the first of nine overall championship pennants for the program.
After staving off Granite Bay 51-48 in the Section final, Manteca earned its highestever placement for the California Interscholastic Federation Northern Regional Bowl Game. The Buffaloes were paired with longtime North Coast Section power Pittsburg in Division I-A — the third-highest division of
the 14 in CIF’s competitivebased state championship format.
Even as rain soaked its artificial turf in Contra Costa County, Pitt overwhelmed the Buffs with speed on the way to a convincing 35-14 win. That makes Manteca 0-6 in NorCal appearances.
“We have plans on going back to Sections,” said thirdyear inside linebacker Tommy Perea, the anointed “Shepherd” for the year.
“With our tough schedule coming up, we want to play our best at all times. We always want to be on 10. This year, practices have been a bit different — more fast paced and more focused. Hopefully that helps us get our first NorCal win this year.”
Manteca brings back many of its standouts and welcomes players from talented classes in the lower levels. As a program, the Buffaloes went 28-4.
Here’s a closer look at the Buffaloes:
Offense: There’s no replacing a talent like Nichelson, who shattered program rushing and scoring records the past three seasons.
Enter Bryson Davis, another physical specimen next in line to become the centerpiece of Manteca’s traditional powerrunning attack. The 6-foot-1,
210-pound back left his mark in a secondary role last year, churning out 1,202 yards (8.6 per carry) and 16 touchdowns.
“I’m ready,” Davis said of taking over as the lead back.
“I’m just depending on the line to block for me.
“I think this year, we’re a better passing team,” he added.
“That’s really going to open up the field for the run game.”
He’ll have three massive returning linemen to follow in center C.J. King, Bryson McMichael and Ratu Tomasi.
The Buffaloes have also added 6-2, 225-pound tight end Joshua Mellion, a transfer from Weston Ranch.
Garrison Reis takes over at quarterback after playing mostly at tight end and linebacker the past two years. Senior Diego Esparza leads a young but deep stable of receivers.
“We have a lot of receivers this year to go with the running game,” Varnum said. “We’re still Manteca (as a running team) at our core, but we have
5-6 guys who can do damage and with a strong thrower like Garrison who can spread it out, if we need to.”
Defense: Long-time defensive coordinator Rick James lost inside linebacker Alijah Cota — a VOL Co-Defensive Player of the Year — but returns six starters from a unit that surrendered just 16 points per game in the regular season.
Perea is paired with sophomore Ruben Moreno in the middle, and they’re surrounded with proven talent.
“We’re going to be great this year,” Perea said. “We have very high hopes. Our air game is going to be better, and we’re still going to bring it up front. Losing Alijah hurts, for sure, but I think we’ll be even stronger.”
High-motor defensive lineman Isaiah White and defensive backs Eddie Anthony and Chris Chavez all shined as sophomores last year.
A question mark to start last season, the defensive backfield is now a strength with senior strong safety Kaden MacDannald also returning.
Schedule: Manteca proved itself among heavyweights in 2022. Now, the big-league schools are lining up to take their shots.
The Buffaloes are ranked No.
Head coach: Mark Varnum (sixth year)
Staff: Rick James (DC), Brian Rohles (OC), Paul Camara, Jason Dukes, Dan Eavenson, Josh Farris, Ken Menasco, Roman Penirian, Ryan Culpepper (JV), Daniel Johnson (JV), Vince Bordi (frosh).
2022: 4-1 Valley Oak League runner-up, 11-2 overall. SJS Division II champion, NorCal D-1A Bowl Game.
Schedule: Aug. 18 at Vista del Lago, Aug. 25 vs. Granite Bay, Sept. 1 at St. Mary’s, Sept. 9 vs. Rocklin (Honor Bowl at Oak Ridge HS), Sept. 22 at Lodi, Sept. 29 vs. Kimball, Oct. 6 at Sierra, Oct. 13 vs. East Union, Oct. 20 at Central Catholic, Oct. 27 at Oakdale.
8 in the MaxPreps SJS Preseason Top 25, and four of their opponents — No. 3 St. Mary’s, No. 4 Granite Bay, No. 5 Central Catholic, No. 6 Rocklin — are ranked ahead of them.
“That’s the type of competition we need to play at the level we’re at now,” Varnum said.
“These are the types of teams we see in the playoffs. If we’re lucky enough to make it to the NorCal game, we’ll be battle tested. It will help us for the
VOL, as well. “We’re going to know where we are after the first five games, but expectations remain the same no matter who we play and no matter who puts on the uniform.” Manteca’s other two nonleague opponents are no slouches in Folsom-based Vista del Lago and Lodi, now headed by former Manteca JV head coach and varsity assistant Joe Rohles.
“Running a football team is not different from running any other kind of organization - an army, a political party, a business. The principles are the same, the object is to win - to beat the other guy. Maybe that sounds hard or cruel. I don’t think it is. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately so is losing. Remember, a student athlete is not a right - it’s a privilege. You have the honor to represent your school, your community, your family and yourself.”
Best of Luck
TALENTED SOPHS BOLSTER LANCERS
With few returning seniors, EU fills roster with young reinforcementsBy JONAMAR JACINTO The Bulletin
The future is now for thirdyear East Union coach Mike Kuhnlenz.
With skillful sophomores joining a sparse-but-seasoned class of seniors, the Lancers are confident they’ll reach SacJoaquin Section playoffs for a third straight year.
“We don’t have a lot of seniors, but the ones we do have have been with us awhile,” Kuhnlenz said. “We’re excited for those guys that are in year 3, and we’re excited for those sophomores who went 9-1 last year (at the freshman level) and won a share of the (Valley Oak League) title.
“Overall, it’s a great group of kids and they work super hard. It’s been fun this summer to see the progress of the team, and we have got good leadership.”
Multi-position star Dylan Lee, now a middle linebacker at San Jose State, carried much of the load on both sides of scrimmage the past two seasons.
The Lancers finished 4-7 last year and took a heartbreaking 33-28 loss to Nevada Union in the first round of the SJS Division IV playoffs.
Third-year linebacker Carson Sanders takes the lead defensively, and the spread
offense will lean on its experienced linemen.
Here is a closer look at the 2023 Lancers:
Offense: Kuhnlenz will start a different quarterback for a third consecutive season, the question is whom.
In competition are junior Anthony Morales and sophomore Kirk Simoni.
The latter posted impressive numbers in nine games with the freshman teamand debuted with the varsity in East Union’s Week-10 contest at Kimball, showing incredible poise in the entertaining 36-30 defeat.
The 6-foot-3 Morales was also highly productive as a freshman. He quarterbacked the 2-8 JV team last season while his favorite targets from the previous year played on the varsity.
“He’s been in the offense going on year 3, and has a good grasp of it,” Kuhnlenz said of Morales. “He has a great release and can run. We like (his mobility) because it really opens up the offense for us.
“Those guys are not backing down. They’re both competing for the job, and that’s what you want from that position. They’re making it difficult for me, for sure. It’s a good problem.”
Second-year juniors Robby
Espinosa and Blake Mount and senior Orian Germann are part of a deep and athletic receiver corps, and the speedy Cesar Salinas may get the bulk of the carries at running back.
The offensive line is where the Lancers attack carries the most experience. Senior guards T.J. Agueda and Sebastian Arrizano anchor the group along with 6-5, 275-pound tackle Leland Crabb.
Defense: Two-time AllVOL selection Sanders and sophomore linebacker Brayden Camara should benefit from their experienced lineman. Arrizano, another third-year starter, and Agueda are also on the interior of the defensive line with second-year junior Brady Rossi. Seniors Brandon McCullough and Crabb return at the ends.
“They (defensive line) did a great job last year,” Kuhnlenz said. “We want to stay healthy, that’s the big thing. They’ve been lifting a lot since January, getting bigger, stronger and faster. We’re going to ask a lot
of them so that our linebackers can roam free. We think these guys are going to be able to do their job up front.”
The defensive backfield is led by Germann and Mount at the safety spots.
Schedule: Every week presents a different challenge for these Lancers, but they all could have one thing in common — as of now, none of them are taking place at Dino Cunial Field.
Six of their 10 regular-season games are on the road, and with renovations ongoing at East Union’s stadium their ‘home’ games are taking place across town at Manteca or Lathrop.
“It shouldn’t affect how we play,” Agueda said. “Yes, it sucks we may not be able to at least have a senior (night) game on our home field, but other than that, I don’t believe it will be a factor in how we play.”
East Union starts with two interesting matchups against out-of-area opponents. First is a trip to Fairfield to face 6-5, 300-pound Jericho Johnson and Armijo. Johnson is a fourstar defensive tackle with 20 offers. Then the Lancers head to Tennyson of Hayward, the reigning West Alameda County Conference Foothill League champion.
They’ll round out their preleague schedule with more-
Head coach: Mike Kuhnlenz (third year)
Staff: Corey Norwood (defensive coordinator), Barry Keith, Don Duenes, Lou Smith, Charles Brooks (JV), Moises Tabarez (frosh).
2022: 1-4 Valley Oak League, 4-7 overall. SJS Division IV playoffs.
Schedule: Aug. 18 at Armijo, Aug. 25 at Tennyson, Sept. 1 vs. Ripon, Sept. 8 vs. Enochs (at Manteca High), Sept. 22 at Lincoln, Sept. 29 vs. Central Catholic (at Lathrop High), Oct. 6 at Oakdale, Oct. 13 at Manteca, Oct. 20 vs. Sierra (at Lathrop), Oct. 27 vs. Kimball (at Manteca).
Home game sites subject to change
familiar opponents in TransValley League contender Ripon, Enochs of Modesto and tradition-rich Lincoln from Stockton.
Kuhnlenz expects his team’s speed and toughness to be tested in the first half of its schedule, and the Lancers have not forgotten the 61-22 thrashing they took from Lincoln.
“After that, it’s the easy part of our schedule,” Kuhnlenz
East Union opens VOL play against reigning champion Central Catholic, travels to Oakdale hoping to end a 29-game skid against the Mustangs and then it’s on to defending SJS Division II champion Manteca.
“That’s the VOL, Kuhnlenz said. “We wouldn’t have it any other way. We want to play great teams. That’s what makes Friday nights fun.”
New but familiar coach hopes to lead Sierra back to former gloryBy JONAMAR JACINTO The Bulletin
Despite a tumultuous threeyear run, Sierra’s seniors are going into their final season with a positive mind set.
Jeff Abrew, the Timberwolves’ third coach in as many years, wants nothing more than for the seniors to be rewarded for their persistence. They’ve gone 1-9 the past two seasons, and their development was stunted as freshman because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2021, COVID cases forced the varsity and junior varsity teams to begin official practices more than a week later than all other teams, as players quarantined for 10 days. The JV team, which included much of the current seniors, folded before the third game of the season because of low numbers.
“They’ve had a rough go,” Abrew said. “We’re definitely trying to win some games for these seniors. They didn’t have a freshman year, which was the COVID year. Sophomore year, their team got dismantled. They’re trying to end their high school career on a higher note, that’s for sure.”
Sierra has won just a total of three games since claiming the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV title in 2019. The T’wolves went 1-4 in the pan-
demic-shortened spring 2021 campaign, and 1-9 in each of the following two.
“After the last two years, we definitely have something to prove,” strong safety/linebacker Aydan Harris said.
Previously an assistant and offensive coordinator under predecessors Jeff Harbison (twice) and Chris Johnson, Abrew’s elevation to head coach has made for a smooth transition. He welcomed back many of the assistants who have served the program for years and will continue orchestrating the spread offense originally introduced to the program by Harbison.
“The junior class we’re bringing up has a lot of talent and it’s going to make our team better, we just have to get them ready for varsity football,” Abrew said. “We have to get prepared for the Valley Oak League — that’s a gauntlet. The five teams we face are really good, so we just have to get our guys playing at a high level and fast.”
Here’s a closer look at Sierra’s 2023 squad:
Offense: Third-year running back Anthony Grady has been the focal point, but he envisions an even more dangerous all-around attack.
The lone All-VOL selection for Sierra accounted for more than half of the team’s offensive production last sea-
son. “I feel like we have more threats on the offensive end, and I feel like as the season goes, I won’t really be the focal point because (opposing defenses) will have way more people that they need to worry about,” Grady said.
The Timberwolves will have more weapons in the passing game. Incumbent starter Tim Sarginson showed improvement at quarterback throughout last season. Challenging him for the starting spot is junior Zak Willson, whose dual-threat capability was featured for the 6-4 JV squad.
“They both have a great football mindset, and they know the game very well,” Abrew said. “Tim is the (varsity) returner who has really good pocket presence. Zak has played in the system the last two years in the lower levels and brings a lot of athleticism. His pocket presence is starting to get better, but it’s obviously a jump from JV and he’s getting used to the speed of the varsity game.”
Sierra lost its top wide out, Joey Mendez, to graduation but now has more depth
behind third-year varsity player Izayah Houston.
“There are a lot of new faces in the receiving corps,” Abrew said. “Some of these guys will play a little bit of defense, so the more depth the better.”
Jax Ballard is entering his third varsity season, but the 6-foot-2, 245-pound guard is the only returning starter on the offensive line.
Defense: Sierra has some unique athletes such as 6-3 junior Tali Vaituna, a rangy receiving target on one end and a terror off the edge on the other. Seniors Jesse Flores and Josh Seals also fit that mold.
It’s an area of strength for the Timberwolves, who are working to greatly improve after surrendering 50 points per game last eason.
Juniors Brock Felt, Mario Juarez and Caleb Love are the linchpins at the linebacker spots. Felt was a varsity starter last season, and Juarez was the leading tackler for the JV.
Nikko Camarena, Evan Greenwood and Houston join Harris in the defensive backfield.
“It’s a work in progress,” Abrew said. “We need to fly to the football and tackle, that’s what it comes down to. That’s what we’ve been working on, is tackling and
Head coach: Jeff Abrew (first year)
Staff: Mike James (defensive coordinator), Tony Jimenez, Jay Muschott, Les Wheeler, Booie Daniels (JV), Willie Juarez (frosh).
2022: 0-5 Valley Oak League, 1-9 overall
Schedule: Aug. 18 at Lathrop, Aug. 25 at Grace Davis, Sept. 1 vs. Golden Valley, Sept. 8 vs. Armijo, Sept. 15 at Modesto, Sept. 29 vs. Oakdale, Oct. 6 vs. Manteca, Oct. 13 at Kimball, Oct. 20 at East Union, Oct. 27 vs. Central Catholic.
pursuing to the football.”
Schedule: An old rivalry is renewed in week zero when the Timberwolves visit Lathrop, a fellow Manteca Unified school they last played in 2019.
The Week 3 showdown with Armijo also presents a challenge in the form of four-star lineman Jericho Johnson. Week 2 is the home opener with Golden Valley, which is retooling after an 8-3 campaign. Grace Davis and Modesto round out the
T’wolves’ pre-league schedule, where they’ll want to pick up some victories before heading into the trials of the VOL.
“We’re just trying to get our players to compete at a high level,” Abrew said. “We want to play with energy and passion and let the chips fall where they may.
“The last three years, we won one game a year at the varsity level. We need to bring that winning tradition back. The goal is to make the playoffs this year.”
LATHROP EAGER TO END PLAYOFF DROUGHT
Spartans motivated after missing cut despite 6-4 finishes the past two seasonsBy JONAMAR JACINTO The Bulletin
Winning records were not enough to send Lathrop to the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs in Ryan Teicheira’s first two seasons as coach.
He’s hoping that some of the heartbreaking moments from last year serve as valuable learning experiences.
The Spartans finished 6-4 for a second straight year, but strength of schedule and computer ratings kept them on the outside looking in. Ultimately, Lathrop was done in by missed opportunities in one-score defeats to Bradshaw Christian, Pacheco and Los Banos.
“We’re motivated,” offensive tackle Dominic Corral said. “We really want to get past that six-win mark. Our goal is to win the WAC championship. Being stuck at 6-4, we don’t want that. We want more.”
A win over outright champion Los Banos would have earned a split of the title for the Spartans, which would have been their first in program history and a clincher for that elusive postseason berth. Lathrop’s only postseason appearance occurred in 2015.
“We’ve talked about the 7-8 plays that could have been season changers for us,” Teicheira said. “The juniors can probably tell you every single one of those plays, and I know it doesn’t sit well with them.
They’re hungry to get those wins and finish those games that they didn’t last year.”
Even with an almost entirely new cast of skill position players on offense, Lathrop is confident it can once again contend for the WAC championship and a postseason berth.
“Everyone is tired of missing the playoffs by one game,” tight end/defensive lineman Nathan Martinez said. “Everyone is really stepping it up this year, from the seniors coming back to the juniors coming up. Everyone wants to win. It’s the same mind set, and we’re really determined to get to that next level.”
Here’s a closer look at the Spartans:
Offense: The Wing-T has been a great fit for Lathrop, thus far.
Teicheira has had the linemen to implement the run-based attack, and Spartans ball carriers will have another year to run behind Corral. The 6-foot-2, 260pound All-WAC tackle brings the most size and experience up front.
“We had mostly seniors on the line last year, but I think this year we’re going to take a big step,” Corral said of the offense. “We’re a lot faster and more physical overall.”
A defensive standout a year ago, Jimari Dove will get more touches out of the backfield at tailback. Senior Julio Garcia is locked in at
fullback, and several players will rotate at wingback.
“We have a lot of weapons that we’re excited about,” Teicheira said.
He is hopeful that the team will be able to open up the passing game this season.
Teagan Shevlin got most of the snaps behind center last season after original starter Jericho Santillan went down with a knee injury.
Jordan Blase is also getting a look after quarterbacking the 5-4 junior varsity team. Sophomore Treydon Santos led Lathrop’s perfect run through WAC competition at the fresh man level, though Teicheira views him as a multi-fac eted threat who can line up in various spots in the offense.
“As much as we’d like to say it’s solidified, we need to have some competition (for starting quarterback),”
Teicheira said. “We want to have somebody that can give us a great element in the run and pass game and build off of what we did last year.”
Defense: Justin Muschott replaces longtime and nowretired defensive coordinator Ross Tisdell, and he has returning talent at every level.
It starts up front, with junior all-conference selection Sean Teu and Javier Guevara in the middle with Martinez at end. There is also much potential from 6-6, 220-pound Casyn Hopping at the other end. Corral will be included in the rotation.
“Our defensive line is something we feel is going to be our strong point this year,” Teicheira said. “We love the quickness that we have paired with the strength of those guys in the middle. It’s going to be fun to watch.”
Junior Michael Adams and sophomore Pablo Pena, brought up as a freshman last season, and Garcia are battling for starting spots at linebacker.
Head coach: Ryan Teicheira (third year)
Staff: Justin Muschott (defensive coordinator), Nathan Brown, Dom Jimenez, Mark Rangel, Scott Teicheira Jr., James Petroske (JV head coach), Justin Miller (frosh head coach).
2022: 5-2 Western Athletic Conference, 6-4 overall.
Schedule: Aug. 18 vs. Sierra, Aug. 25 at Bradshaw Christian, Sept. 1 vs. Weston Ranch, Sept. 15 vs. Ceres, Sept. 22 vs. Pacheco, Sept. 29 at Beyer, Oct. 6 at Grace Davis, Oct. 13 vs. Johansen, Oct. 20 at Los Banos, Oct. 27 at Mountain House.
guys, but we’re an in-thetrenches type of team,” Teicheira said. “That’s where we start.”
Schedule: Lathrop is rekindling an old rivalry in week zero when Sierra visits. It’s a special one for Teicheira, a Sierra grad who was offensive coordi
ing challenges his team will face in every pre-league contest, from Sierra’s spread offense to Bradshaw’s physical Wing-T and Weston Ranch’s prolific pistol.
Lathrop opens league with contenders Pacheco and Ceres at home and later ends with champion Los
Battle-hardened Indians have depth, talent at skill positions but unproven in trenchesBy JONAMAR JACINTO
Ripon stumbled to a 5-7 record in 2022, dropping four of its final five games.
And coach Chris Musseman came away highly encouraged.
Injuries and a lack of depth at key positions forced underclassmen to be thrust into big games at the end of the season, and they proved to be up to the task.
They ended the regular season with a 21-19 loss to eventual Division V-AA state champion Hughson, coming back from a 21-0 halftime deficit only to come up short on the 2-point conversion midway through the fourth quarter.
The following week, Ripon trailed 24-7 against Rosemont but rallied for an astounding 35-30 victory in the first round of the SacJoaquin Section Division V playoffs.
Then the Indians gave No. 1-seeded Sutter all it could handle before ultimately falling 14-0 in the quarterfinals. It was a scoreless dogfight until the Huskies finally broke through with a short touchdown pass with 5 seconds left in the third quarter.
“I think it helps that a lot of the kids who played in those games, even if they didn’t start, were younger guys who got a lot of reps,” Musseman said. “We had 3-4 sopho-
mores on the field on the defensive side for the playoffs, even though they were on the JV most of the year.”
Much of the returners are at the skill positions, where there is more depth and versatility. The team is a work in progress in the trenches, however.
Here’s a look at the 2023 Indians:
Offense: Ripon struggled in the back half of the season after an injury to then-sophomore tailback Anden Ries left the Indians without a plowing between-the-tackles rusher.
That should not be an issue this year.
Ripon now has a stable of athletes in every spot in the backfield, and with talented receivers and improving quarterback the Wing-T attack has potential to be far more potent. Last year, the Indians leaned on dynamic wingback Xzavier Clark to spark the offense, especially after Ries went down with a knee sprain.
“I think we definitely have weapons to be reckoned with,” Clark said. “We have so much speed and talent coming up from JV that people don’t even realize we have. With Anden being back and his ability to just bulldoze over people, it’s going to be much better for us.”
Musseman expects for the offense to be more balanced
with the emergence of Ty Herrin at quarterback. The 6-foot-3 senior, who was a lineman in the lower levels, has worked on getting better in all aspects of the position. He’ll have talented targets in 6-2 Jesse Ochoa and 6-1 second-year junior Brett Shaw.
“He has come a long way not just physically and how he throws the ball, but in overall leadership and understanding what we’re trying to do,” Musseman said.
While set at the skill positions, Ripon has some big holes to fill up front after three-year, all-league selection Camryn Arriola anchored an all-senior offensive line.
This year’s group lacks the size, depth and experience of its predecessor but is aided by junior fullback Cade Escalante and 6-2, 240pound senior tight end Owen Wilbur.
“A lot is going to depend on how fast we can get those guys to come around and do it,” Musseman said of the makeshift offensive line,
which includes two tight ends who were shifted to the interior and some sophomores. “That is definitely where we need the most work.”
Defense: Ripon graduated much of its defensive front, but there is talent returning at every level.
Ries and Shaw were starting inside and outside linebackers, respectively, as sophomores. Defensive back Dru Orlando and lineman Tipeti Paini, a freshman last year, impressed after their late-season call-ups.
“We still kind of are a younger group,” Ochoa said. “We lost some big guys on the line, but we’re a little more physical this year. That’s something the coaches wanted more from us last year. I think we’re a lot more aggressive this year. Everybody’s just amped and ready to play some football.”
Clark and Ochoa lead the defensive backfield. Ochoa was among state leaders last year with eight interceptions.
Senior Mikey Herrera is back to anchor the D-line after suffering an early season-ending injury. Senior linebackers Austin Foster and Austin Wood will have expanded roles, as is secondyear junior Logan Lefebvre.
Schedule: The Indians have added two new non-league opponents to strengthen their overall schedule.
at a glance
Head coach: Chris Musseman (eighth year)
Staff: Cole Williams (defensive coordinator), Jorge Velasco (defensive coordinator), Mike Merchant (pass game coordinator), Sam Azevedo, Jake McCreath, Jake Rodriguez, Brian Swift, Brian Wood.
2022: 2-4 Trans-Valley League, 5-7 overall. Sac-Joaquin Section Division V quarterfinals.
Schedule: Aug. 18 at Linden, Aug. 25 at Sonora, Sept. 1 vs. East Union, Sept. 9 vs. Calaveras, Sept. 22 vs. Liberty Ranch, Sept. 29 at Modesto Christian, Oct. 6 vs. Hilmar, Oct. 13 at Livingston, Oct. 20 at Escalon, Oct. 27 vs. Hughson.
It starts Week Zero at Linden, a small school that returns much of its offensive weapons after finishing as runner-up in the Division II San Joaquin Athletic Association.
Ripon also picked up reigning Sierra Valley Conference champion Liberty Ranch in Week 5 following its bye.
Liberty Ranch was also the No. 3 seed in the SJS Division V playoffs.
“It’s a good challenge for us to play some better teams,” Musseman said.
“We’re going to see some
different kinds of offenses and defenses, which is good preparation for our league. Playing in the TVL, you have to play some tough preseason games, or you’re not going to survive.”
The rest of the pre-league slate is filled with familiar foes. The Indians tangle with future TVL member Sonora for a ninth straight season (not counting the COVID year) and will look to avenge back-to-back competitive losses to East Union. They’ll also see Calaveras for a sixth consecutive year.
KNIGHTS MAKING FINAL CHARGE IN SAL
Ripon Christian returns many starters from defending SJS Division VII championship teamBy JONAMAR JACINTO The Bulletin
Ripon Christian has taken on an unfamiliar role as the hunted after claiming its first Sac-Joaquin Section title.
“It’s one thing to get that title, but then to back it up, that’s definitely different,” coach Phil Grams said.
“Everybody wants to give us their best shot this year.”
RC held off Woodland Christian 28-16 in the Division VII final and drew Hughson for its first appearance in a NorCal Bowl Game. The Knights drew a tough assignment in Trans-Valley League power Hughson and dropped a 31-28 heartbreaker but proved themselves as a worthy opponent despite three of their top two-way sitting out with devastating injuries.
For returning players, it serves as motivation. Even with the target on their backs, they believe there is still more left for them to achieve, as the school prepares for its return to the rugged Trans-Valley League after 13 years in the Southern Athletic League.
“We want to build off that energy and get back to where we were,” flyback/ cornerback Brady Grondz said. “We want to go even farther.”
With eight starters returning on both sides of the scrimmage and younger players coming up from the 8-2 JV team, the Knights have good reason to feel
“You can’t replace championship experience,” Grams said. “Even before those guys went down, on a 22-man roster guys are getting in and getting experience.”
Here’s a look at the 2023
Offense: Leading the charge are third-year starters Dustin Hoekstra, Grant Sonke and Grondz. Tight end/linebacker Hoekstra is expected to miss about half the regular season while recovering from elbow surgery.
The sturdy Sonke has been the top rusher for Grams’ fly offense, and Grondz is the speedy playmaker in space both in the run and pass game.
Paving the way is a veteran offensive line headed by 6-foot-3, 305-pound tackle Carson Bunnell and second-year junior center Jimmy Heida. There are new faces in the passing attack. Taking over at quarterback is sophomore Mason Tameling.
“He’s pretty talented,” Grams said. “We’ll look a little different than last year with a senior quarterback. We’ll do some things to slow some things down and make sure we have extra protection, but we feel like he’s a varsity quarterback right now.”
Senior Jace Beidleman may also get some reps behind center, but the
Knights would rather put his 6-9 frame to use at tight end. They also have an ensemble of wide outs and flybacks such as Ethan Schenk, Elias Ochoa, second-year junior Josh Miller and sophomore Amos Cady.
Defense: While the Knights anticipate the return of their leading tackler from 2022 in Hoekstra, they’ll still be plenty stout up front.
Cote Windorski rejoins Bunnell and Heida on the line, which is further solidified with the addition of sophomore Matthew Chapman. Behind them are productive linebackers Preston Zuidervaart and Sonke, along with 6-foot, 215pound second-year junior Logan DeJong.
“We have so much young talent coming up to help us seniors and other returning players get to that next level,” Grondz said. “There are a lot of guys who are going to make plays.”
Grondz racked up 18 pass deflections last season at
cornerback. Miller is another player who gained valuable experience as a sophomore in the defensive backfield. Cady is in contention to start at safety.
“We have a lot of experience coming back, but we play both ways,” Grams said. “That’s our biggest deal every day — can we keep our 22 bodies healthy?”
Schedule: Ripon Christian again starts the season against Central Valley Christian, a top program out of the Central Section.
The Cavaliers from Visalia took it to the Knights last year 42-14, the first of 12 straight wins until they lost in the CS Division II championship game.
Grams had to scramble for a new Week 1 opponent after Cloverdale dropped out over the summer.
In its place is Pajaro Valley of Watsonville, which has won no more than three games in a season the past seven years.
The Knights will face another struggling team in Calaveras before going on their bye week in preparation for their final march through the SAL.
They’ll get their biggest test early on, as reigning champion Orestimba visits in Week 5.
The hope is for them to be as close to 100 percent healthy as possible at that point.
Managing a small roster
Head coach: Phil Grams (third year)
Staff: Eddie Erdelatz (assistant head coach), Jake Beukelman (defensive coordinator), Jeff Grondz, Jordan Goslinga, Kevin Van Donselaar, Steve Anastasio, Derek Dotinga, Pat McGovern, Fred Bunnell (JV).
2022: 6-1 Southern Athletic League, 11-3 overall. Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII champion, NorCal Division 5-AA Bowl Game.
Schedule: Aug. 18 at Central Valley Christian, Aug. 25 vs. Pajaro Valley, Sept. 1 at Calaveras, Sept. 15 at Denair, Sept. 22 vs. Orestimba, Sept. 29 vs. Waterford, Oct. 6 at Le Grand, Oct. 13 vs. Mariposa, Oct. 20 at Gustine, Oct. 27 vs. Delhi.
has always been a tall task for Ripon Christian coaches, and they’re expecting it to get tougher next season when they begin the weekly carnage of the TVL.
The TVL has long been considered the best smallschool league in the state, and it’s only going to get better with RC, Orestimba and Mother Lode League power Sonora joining with up with Escalon, Hilmar, Hughson, Modesto Christian and Ripon — all schools with state championships.
Preparing the younger classes for the future chal-
lenges is a responsibility the current seniors gladly take on.
“It means a ton to me, and I can vouch for these guys too, it means a lot to us,” Sonke said. “We’ve been around for quite a while now, and it’s a big deal making that jump from the Southern League to TVL, which is a dominant small-school league. So fostering these younger players to becoming great players and great men is an honor for us. We don’t get to be part of the team next year, but we’ll definitely be part of their legacy.”