The last time the Hilmar High Yellowjackets and the Ripon Christian Knights collided, they played for major stakes.
Hilmar prevailed 57-14 in the 2018 Sac-Joaquin Section DVI title final, and, two weeks later, the Yellowjackets celebrated a state title. The rematch happens in the DVI semifinal Friday night at Hilmar.
The storylines stack like firewood: Is Hilmar still that much better than RC? What about the Knights’three-week layoff? Are the Yellowjackets building another playoff push?
“You have to respect that they (Ripon Christian) are still winning. They’ve got a great program,” Hilmar coach Frank Marques said. “There are no guarantees this time of year. One loss and you’re moving on to the next sport.”
Ripon Christian and Hilmar enter with 10-1 records and plenty of momentum. RC, the run-away Southern League champion, has rolled since a one-point loss to Grace Davis in the season opener. Hilmar has won five straight since its loss to Escalon on Sept. 27.
What's eye-opening is the teams’ light work-rate over the past month. Before last week’s impressive 49-17 victory over Bear River, the Yellowjackets had taken the field only three times over the previous six weeks (a regular-season bye, a forfeit over Modesto Christian and a first-round bye).
Ripon Christian’s situation is more acute. The Knights have been idle since their win over Delhi on Nov. 1, due to a first-round bye and Calaveras’ forfeit due its usage of an ineligible player.
The Knights attended Hilmar’s win last week and most left before halftime, such was the Yellowjackets’ domination.
“We can’t start slow and just knock the rust off. We have to come out with energy and be physical,” said RC assistant coach Eddie Erdelatz, the spokesman for head coach Randy Fasani (Fasani nursed a mid-week illness).
“The kids have been pretty resilient and have been up to the challenge,” Erdelatz continued. “We hope we’re peaking, too.”
The Knights, winners of a school-record 12 games last fall, feature one of the area’s most dynamic players in senior Sean McGovern. All he’s done is score 29 touchdowns -- 23 rushing and six receiving – and doubled as a hard-hitting safety. He scored both touchdowns, one on a scoop-and-score, against Hilmar last year.
McGovern, two-way lineman Garrett Bryan and linebacker Wyatt Van Vliet swept the SL’s major awards and are three-year starters. Ripon Christian’s success stems from this trio among others.
Defensively, Ripon Christian has yielded a section-low 50 points. Van Vliet has logged a team-leading 114 tackles and teammate Declan Van Vuren has recorded 14 sacks.
Tops on the Knights’ priority list is proving they belong on this stage. That means standing up to powerful programs such as Hilmar.
“Hilmar is a heck of a team,” said Erdelatz, the Ripon Christian defensive coordinator. “ We didn’t respond well to adversity last year but we’re happy to get another chance. We have to beat teams like them to get to the next level. This is where it starts.”
Hilmar, comfortable with these extended postseason campaigns, shared the Trans Valley League title with Escalon and Ripon. When last year’s quarterback Treven Crowley opted out of football (He’ll soon pitch for Fresno State), the Yellowjackets hardly faltered with successor Seth Miguel.
Miguel, a junior, has thrown 25 touchdown passes against only three interceptions. More important, he has shown marked improvement in recent weeks. He’s also surrounded by running backs Steven Silva and Cole Bailey and receiver Aidan Azevedo (13 touchdowns).
“Treven would have had a battle with Seth for that job,” Marques said. “Seth can process all the reads and … has just gotten better and better.”
Marques’ job this week was to convince the Yellowjackets, especially the seniors, that Ripon Christian could be a difficult foe. In last year’s meeting, Hilmar took charge after a scoreless first quarter.
“They weren’t as bad as that final score and we weren’t as good as that score,” Marques said. “I know we’re practicing better at this time than last year’s team. This is a focused group.”