Katie O’leary has seen the Ripon Christian High softball program rise from the bottom.
The Knights senior shortstop has seen RC improve from a two-win team her freshman season to three wins her sophomore year, finishing in last place in the Southern League. Last year Ripon Christian jumped to eight wins.
On Wednesday night, O’leary and the rest of her softball teammates were holding the blue section banner. Top-seeded Ripon Christian defeated No. 3 Stone Ridge Christian 13-3 to win the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VII championship at the Arnaiz Softball Complex in Stockton.
“It’s been quite a long battle over the years for what this program went through,” said O’leary, who hit a solo home run in the third inning and scored three runs. “We went from a team that was excited to win one game. It used to be not did we get run-ruled, but by how much? That’s how we use to measure ourselves.”
Ripon Christian beat an upstart Stone Ridge Christian team that returned to Stockton less than 24 hours after playing two long games the previous night to earn their way into the title game.
“I have five freshman, we played two games yesterday and I think that hurt us,” said SRC coach Gerald Nelson, whose team finished the season with a 19-7 record. “I have maybe three or four players that are OK with playing three games in two days, but this team persevered all year. This team has gone through it.”
Ripon Christian (22-7) edged Stone Ridge Christian 2-1 in the winners bracket semifinals on Tuesday night.
Rizzuto had his girls come in with a different approach at the plate in the rematch. Rizzuto wanted his girls to be more selective at the plate against SRC starter Emma Eastman and it paid off early.
Eastman walked four hitters in the first inning as RC scored three runs with the help of only one hit to jump out to an early lead.
“That was key to the game plan,” Rizzuto said. ‘Yesterday we were chasing her high rise balls. Today we laid off those pitches and made her come into the zone.”
Eastman didn’t make it out of the first inning. Hannah Nelson came in to limit the damage to three runs by striking out the final two hitters of the inning with the bases loaded.
“That’s not her,” Gerald Nelson said of Eastman. “In her first playoff game she threw 80 pitches and 65 of them were strikes. She struck out 15 and walked none against Bradshaw Christian. She threw seven innings yesterday, but I don’t think that was it. You just can’t be on all the time.”
Ripon Christian tacked on a run in the third on O’leary’s home run and added another run in the fourth with the help of a Stone Ridge Christian error to extend the lead to 5-0.
The lead ballooned to 9-0 in the fifth inning with the help of an RBI double by Elizabeth Thomas and an run-scoring single by Nikki Berghorst during a four-run rally.
Meanwhile, Ripon Christian freshman left-hander Madison DeGraaf kept SRC scoreless through the first six innings. DeGraaf didn’t surrender her first hit until the fourth inning. She did give up three runs in the sixth as Laura Hooker highlighted the Stone Ridge three-run rally with a two-run double.
“I think we waited until it was a little too late,” Hooker said. “We didn’t wake up until the second half of the game. We have a young team. I’m proud of our team because it’s the first time we have got this far.”
Amazingly Ripon Christian was able to win the blue banner with nine freshmen players on the roster. O’leary and Emily Van Vliet were the only two seniors.
“Getting here and winning it means the world to our coach (Lenny Rizzuto) and it means the world to us,” O’leary said. “For Ripon Christian this is history because softball has never done this.”