ROCKLIN -- Before the season began, before the long goodbye in the parking lot of Whitney High School on Thursday morning, Erik Zador forecasted many of his team's struggles.
Along with being one of the Sac-Joaquin Section's youngest boys varsity water polo teams, Ripon was also one of its smallest.
The Indians began the fall with just eight players and lost another to grades just before the start of the Division 2 playoffs.
To top it off, Ripon's seventh boy it's first and only substitute was an undersized freshman: Carson Morrow, all 5 feet, 3 inches of him.
"I told them in the beginning, it's going either be a really hard season or we'll have a really great season," Zador said following Thursday's season-ending, 21-9 loss to Rio Americano in the D2 semifinals.
"It started out rough and they learned quickly what it was like to pull together and win a game.
We've been a Cinderella team competing against these schools with full teams. They've held their composure and surprised some people."
The Indians (18-7) a motley crew featuring three sophomores, an all-state wrestler, just two upperclassmen and Morrow surprised even themselves.
One year after being eliminated in the first round as the Valley Oak League's No. 3 seed, Ripon emerged as one of the Stanislaus District's top clubs.
The Indians went undefeated in Valley Oak League play, finished third at the Fresno Kickoff and Sunnyside Tournament, and clawed its way to a Final Four appearance in the D2 playoffs.
Not bad for a water polo program in its first year with separate boys and girls varsity teams.
(Last season, Ripon competed as a coed team.)
"Our team, we don't have any hot shots. We're a put-together team," Zador said. "They play well together.
"These guys, I think, will be a little more focused come next year. We did pretty good in some tournaments, and we're hoping to go back and win a couple," he later added. "That's what we're looking forward to."
The Indians should return a battle-tested nucleus, too.
Caleb Rogers, the team's only junior, scored four goals against Rio Americano, one of the section's stalwarts in the pool with four section banners.
Trevor Smith, the senior who traded in his singlet for a Speedo, was one of two players with two goals. Sophomore Dalton Trotter was the other.
Morrow proved he was fit for the varsity stage with yet another memorable goal. He scored once on Thursday, just one week after rattling the cage twice in a thrilling 10-9 victory over Christian Brothers in the first round.
"He's pretty tiny," Zador said of Morrow, "but he stepped up big time for us."
Sophomore goalie Kole Gonzales had six saves on Thursday.
"We're just too small," Zador said. "We only have seven players. For us to go and compete against these teams with generations and generations of tradition and kids and actually beat a couple of them was cool for this tiny team."
Division 1 Girls
Alison Miller scored all nine of Merced's goals in a 17-9 loss to St. Francis in the Division 1 semifinal. It was the Bears' first Final Four appearance since 2000.
James Burns is the Regional Sports Content Editor of The Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star.