Freshman Devany Dougherty said the inaugural CIF State Northern California Division IV regional tournament wasn’t a major goal for the Ripon High girls soccer team in December.
But as the wins began to pile up, the regional tournament came into crystal-clear focus.
"When we started the season, it was like, 'Let’s win. Let’s improve on our game and stuff,' " said Dougherty, beaming in a Ripon red sweater and shiny smile.
"Eventually, when we started doing well and we started our winning streak, we were like, 'Maybe we want to take this and make it important.' "
Teammate and leading scorer Ariana Scholten, one of the heroes in Thursday's 3-2 victory over Corning, is embarrassed to admit it: She didn’t think this was possible.
With eight underclassmen, including five freshmen in the starting XI, Scholten, one of those babyfaced ninth graders, wasn’t so sure the Indians were capable of playing into the second week of March. Not this year, anyway.
Yet, here they are: Ripon (18-4-2), the Trans-Valley League runner-up and Sac-Joaquin Section D-IV champion, is the only Stanislaus District girls soccer team left standing.
“I honestly didn’t think we’d make it this far just because we’re Ripon and it’s not something I could grasp,” Scholten revealed, briefly hiding her face with her hands.
And how’s this for a fortuitous bounce?
The third-seeded Indians will host No. 4 Lowell of San Francisco in the regional final on Saturday evening at 6 o’clock. On Friday afternoon, athletic director Rod Wright, buried behind stacks of paper and a demanding class schedule, scrambled to get Stouffer Field ready for its regional debut.
“Logistics,” he said.
Two days after traveling nearly four hours to play Corning in the north state, Ripon became the host and favorite after Lowell stunned University Prep, the top seed. As is the nature with regional and state tournaments, Ripon knows very little about its opponent.
Instead, Dougherty said the team is focused on sustaining momentum, hunting history, and trusting a unique team bond.
“Just realizing how much we love huge game and how much fun it is to play, and seeing how much we can do as a team,” said Dougherty, second on the team in goals (16) and assists (nine). "That’s what keeps us motivated and keeps us driven to win all of these games."
The Indians have won eight consecutive games, including a pair of thrilling one-goal victories over rival Hilmar in the section final and Corning in the regional semifinal. Free kicks, proved instrumental in each triumph.
Dougherty pounced on a deflected cross in overtime against Hilmar, the TVL champion, punching the ball into the back of the net for the game-winner. The play started in the corner with Scholten and glanced off the boot of Pelon.
"I toed the ball up on the corner and Devenay came in and headed it, so that was really exciting for her," Pelon said. "I was like, 'I wish I could get one of those.'
She would following a nearly four-hour trip to Corning, the North Section Division II champion. In the 66th minute, Pelon scored arguably the biggest goal in program history — a follow-up header from inside the 6-yard box that gave the Indians a 3-2 lead.
It was her 13th goal of the season.
Once again, Scholten, who leads the team with 17 goals and 17 assists, started the play with a service to the near post. A Ripon player got there first, knocking the ball into the air for Pelon.
“Her corner kicks are just unbelievable,” Pelon said.
The goal stymied Corning’s attack.
The Cardinals trailed 2-0 at the intermission, but drew even with two goals the first 10 minutes of the second half.
“This team, if the other team scores, we don’t give up. We push,” Pelon said. “Sometimes, on past teams I’ve played on, when the other team scores or it’s tied or they’re winning, we were just like, ‘Oh well, that's it.' But with this high school team, we don’t give up."
When that final whistle sounded, Ripon rushed the middle of the field.
It may not have been a season-long dream, but the Indians have embraced the challenge and pressure of this historic opportunity. They are pioneers in this first season of regional soccer championships.
"The whole weight of the game just fell off our shoulders,” Dougherty said. “We were like, ‘Yes, we’re finally making it to the championship.’
“Its great to play at home, because I don’t think I’d be able to handle another three-hour trip. It’s really, really good to play at home, especially since …"
Dougherty paused, rubbing her hands together as the excitement washed over her. She and many of her teammates never thought this was possible; it was never a major goal.
“… Especially since it’s a regional championship.”