RIPON Plenty has changed since Ripon earned a football title. This year's senior class, for example, was in diapers the last time the Indians celebrated a league crown.
With two 1,000-yard rushers returning, Cole Herrin expects the Indians to end that 16-year drought.
"We've got two great backs, Kyle (Wengel) returns at quarterback
we've got guys who can score if the ball is in their hands," said Herrin, who caught 35 passes and had nine TDs last fall. "But our backs will only go as the offensive line goes."
That's one of the few questions for the Indians to answer. The only returning starter on the line is Kevin Cronin. Graduated tight end Jake McCreath was one of the area's top blockers.
That's not the question, however.
Everyone wants to know what led to last year's playoff loss. At home and playing a Livingston team that had lost four in a row, Ripon stumbled to a 12-10 loss and is 0 for 4 in the playoffs since the millennium.
"A lot of us were asking questions after that loss," said Anthony Baciocco, who ran for 1,021 yards and seven TDs as a junior. "You hear about teams looking too far ahead? That's what happened. We got caught."
Ripon managed just 192 yards offense, well below its average of 390. Baciocco ran for just 41 yards, just 3.4 yards a carry and Herrin's lone catch accounted for just 1 yard.
Only all-district back Josh McCreath played to form, but his 138 yards weren't enough to produce a win.
"No one was more upset than us," said McCreath, who ran for 1,178 yards and averaged six yards a carry. "We gave Escalon a good game, had won four in a row, and we were expecting Hilmar the next round."
There's an additional expectation this year, as traditional dynasties Escalon and Hilmar are rebuilding. For the first time in memory, one of those two is not the heavy favorite.
It opens the door for the Indians.
It might be too much to duplicate the 1996 squad Ripon won the lower-level Southern League and the section small-school crown but anything less than a league title is going to leave the town disappointed.
"With Escalon so close, we have a lot of words back and forth. Everyone would love to beat Escalon," said Herrin, a two-time all-leaguer.
The towns share the same Catholic church and many players still mingle at church functions, having worshipped under the same roof.
Ripon was within 21-14 in the final quarter a year ago, but Escalon scored 10 points to pull away. Wengel (95 of 184, 1,357 yards, 20 TDs) had four of his 10 picks that night.
While McCreath and Baciocco are the main threats, Ripon needs consistency from Wengel.
Of course, Wengel wasn't the only reason Ripon allowed a total of 80 points in two regular-season losses.
Hilmar and Escalon combined for 737 yards offense, running through and passing over the defense. Ripon contributed with its six turnovers.
One factor was that Ripon, rarely a physical team, had Argonaut, Hilmar and Escalon in three consecutive games and began to wear down.
Ripon gets a break this season, facing Escalon in Week 4 and Hilmar in Week 7. Argonaut is gone, too, replaced with struggling Lathrop.
PREDICTIONS 1. Escalon, 2. Ripon, 3. Hilmar, 4. Orestimba, 5. Modesto Christian, 6. Hughson, 7. Riverbank.