Ripon coach Chris Musseman is disappointed Friday's CIF Northern California Regional Bowl game against Sutter has been moved to Downey High School in Modesto, but finds comfort in knowing his team is still playing and wearing home red.

Tough tasks ahead: Escalon and Ripon brace for CIF NorCal finals

Ron Agostini

The two Sac-Joaquin Section champions from the Trans Valley League, often called the toughest small-schools football league in California, may have paid a price for that glossy reputation.

Escalon and Ripon both have been handed difficult assignments for their upcoming CIF Northern California Regional title games.

Escalon (12-1) has been slotted against Pleasant Valley of Chico (7-5), the reigning state Division IV-AA champion and a Northern Section power. The Cougars will take a nearly three-hour bus drive to Chico for their game Saturday night at 6 o’clock.

Meanwhile, Ripon (12-1) is paired against Sutter (12-1) in a D-IV-AA matchup originally scheduled to be held at the Indians’ Stouffer Field.That was changed Tuesday, however, as concerns were raised over Ripon’s soggy turf.

In the VII-AA regional final, section D-VII champion Mariposa County (8-4) meets Lincoln of San Francisco (10-1) Friday night at 7:30 at Merced's Golden Valley High.

The Sutter-Ripon game was moved to the synthetic surface of Downey’s Chuck Hughes Stadium and will be held Friday night at 7:30. It’s a mild disappointment for Ripon, which looked forward to being a host for its first-ever game in December.

“At this point, we don’t care where we play,” Ripon coach Chris Musseman said. “It is a little disappointing, especially for the community and the players. … All I know is we’re playing and we’re wearing red. That works for me.”

Both Ripon and Escalon believe, at least to some extent, they’ve been victimized by the CIF’s pairing philosophy titled “competitive equity.”

Pleasant Valley’s enrollment of 1,828 dwarfs Escalon’s 814. And while Ripon’s enrollment of 909 is larger than Sutter’s 736, the Indians believe Sutter is a small-schools team in name only.

The Indians went 1-3 vs. Sutter, in fact, in a four-game series that ended in 2017. Here’s another note not lost on Ripon: Sutter was competitive at Oakdale’s Corral in the 2017 NorCal finals before the Mustangs won 27-10 en route to a state title. Ripon and Oakdale never would book even a non-league date.

“They (Sutter) draw from a huge area. I don’t know how they ended up in our division,” Musseman said.

Escalon coach Andrew Beam guessed that the TVL’s reputation, enhanced by Hilmar’s impressive romp to a state crown last year, may have resulted in tough draws for Ripon and the Cougars.

“Pleasant Valley plays an unbelievable schedule,” Beam said. “They (the CIF) felt pretty confident in putting us and Ripon up a division.”

Pleasant Valley, which avenged earlier losses by beating Shasta and rival Chico in rematches the last two weeks, will boast a size advantage up front. Last week in rainy conditions, the Vikings snapped the ball to running back Austin York, who responded for 175 yards and three touchdowns.

Escalon was elated over its dominant second half last week to beat Hilmar 41-27 for the Cougars’ first blue banner since 2010. Luke Anderson and Kaden Christensen combined for 270 yards and five touchdowns on 47 carries to turn back the Yellowjackets.

“I don’t know if it’s relief, but we finally got there,” Beam said. “Now we can focus on playing someone like Pleasant Valley.”

Ripon and Escalon understand that – the mixed bag of competitive equity aside – there are no easy opponents this time of year.  

Sutter, which has won 12 straight after a season-opening loss to Cardinal Newman, has won six of the last eight Northern Section titles under coach Ryan Reynolds. The Huskies ended Paradise’s emotional season last week 20-7, as Daniel Cummings rushed for 144 yards.

Then again, Ripon surprised the vast majority of the section with its 21-13 upset win over Center, the section’s only unbeaten finalist. The Indians contained Center’s dynamic quarterback Michael Wortham and handcuffed an offense that had averaged 44 points per game.

That performance gave the Indians' the's Yogurt Mill Team of the Week recognition for the second time this season. And more: Danny Hernandez, one of the Indians' nine seniors, was named the NorCal Defensive Player of the Week by Cal-Hi Sports after his 12 tackles and a caused fumble against Center.

The week before, Ripon rallied from a 27-3 deficit to eliminate Amador.

Ripon’s paper-thin roster somehow stayed strong through a mid-season run of injuries. Musseman cited the development of juniors such as backup quarterback Aaron Wood and linebacker-receiver Mason Knight. Sophomores Caleb Johnston and Colin Speed also have helped the offensive line.

“I knew we had the potential. I just didn’t know how long we would last,” Musseman said. “Could we physically make it?”

They did and, in another mild surprise, so did Mariposa County. The Grizzlies  dethroned 2018 state champion Denair last week when Nate Kunz connected on a 28-yard field goal in overtime to defeat the Coyotes 17-14. Mariposa won its first section title since 1995.

Mariposa, the third-place finisher in the Southern League, rallied from a 14-0 deficit on Logan Donati's 74-yard touchdown run and a 9-yard scoring pass from sophomore quarterback Wyatt Green to Jonathan Chapman. The victory avenged a 14-13 loss to Denair on Oct. 25.

The Grizzlies, coached by Robert Stitt, reached the section final by beating Vacaville Christian 52-27. The 6-foot-2 Green has passed for 1,572 yards and 18 touchdowns, six to Chapman. Donati has rushed for 928 yards and nine TDs.

Lincoln advanced via a 41-12 win over Lowell and, in the annual Turkey Bowl game at Kezar Stadium, 10-0 over Balboa.