Chris Johnson pulled his team close and swayed through the school fight song, slapping shoulder pads and shaking hands as the chorus built.
As the Ripon football coach broke into his postgame speech, with the final scoreboard still glowing over his shoulder, alumni and fans leaned in for a closer listen.
Could it be?
Nearly flawless in the first quarter, the Indians finished off a historic 52-35 victory over Hilmar at McSweeney Field on the power and fury of little Jacob Duxbury.
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The senior running back had more than 300 yards of total offense, including a game-sealing 52-yard touchdown run with 3 minutes, 10 seconds remaining.
The Ripon High historians sprinkled among the crowd believed the victory was the school’s first in Hilmar in more than 30 years.
To that point, Johnson can’t remember the last time the Indians traveled to McSweeney Field and were competitive, let alone victorious.
“To come into this place and be able to come a way with a ‘W’ anytime is good for anybody,” he said. “Hilmar is a great program. There is a lot of pride and a lot of tradition in this community. We’ve been going back over our history with everybody we know. We can’t remember the last time Ripon High won a football game on this field. And to have it happen in your first TVL game ... you can’t ask for a better way to start.”
Before this Trans-Valley League opener turned into a fistfight, it was destined for a quick finish.
Ripon scored 28 points in the first quarter and led 31-6 at the half, staggering their nemesis behind enemy lines.
Quarterback Nick Price took a festive crowd out of the game early, engineering quick scoring drives with his arm and feet. He scrambled to the pylon to make it 14-0, and then closed the quarter with touchdown passes of 9 and 70 yards to Cody Haines and Duxbury, respectively.
Price was 15 of 26 for 237 yards and one interception.
“Everything seemed to click right there. I think our game plan was sound,” Johnson said of the first-quarter push. “We were able to get up, but hats off to Hilmar. We knew they wouldn’t quit. They came roaring back.”
On the throw to Duxbury, Price bought time with his feet, eluding the rush as he kept his eyes downfield. He found two receivers running the same route.
Duxbury was first to the ball, completing the first of many key plays. He finished with 208 rushing yards, 114 on receptions and three touchdowns. He had four plays of 50 or more yards.
Duxbury was at his best in the second half. He answered back-to-back touchdowns by Hilmar to start the second half with a 53-yard scoring run.
He tripped as he negotiated a tight lane, fought off a tackler and then reversed field.
“I tripped over my own feet, so I couldn’t see where I was going,” Duxbury said. “When I looked up, I went straight to the corner. There was open field all to the left.
“You’ve got to be aggressive, and when you have speed, too, it doesn’t matter how small you are. You can still lay a hit, too.”
Ripon needed every last bit of production from Duxbury. Fullback Caleb McCusker (10 carries, 36 yards, one touchdown) left the game with a knee contusion.
“He’s a special kid. He doesn’t say a whole lot, but when push comes to shove, he wants the ball in his hands,” Johnson said. “He’s a gamer. When it comes down to it, he shines when the spotlight is on him.”
The junior-laden Yellowjackets found their rhythm in the second half and closed within 10 points. Daniel Texeira was 23 of 40 for 318 yards and five touchdowns, including four in the second half.
Alex Chavez had 13 receptions for 202 yards and two touchdowns. Klay Farris scored on a 35-yard reception on the first play of the fourth quarter, and Cody Rentfro’s 21-yard catch over the middle made it 45-35 with 4:15 left.
Though his team had played a challenging non-league schedule, one that featured two section finalists, Hilmar coach Frank Marques said his team was nervous for Friday’s TVL opener. And it showed.
Hilmar fumbled away its first possession deep in its own territory and the defense was flagged five times for encroachment in the first quarter as Ripon built a big lead.
“We came out nervous. One mistake led to another. The fact that we fought back was the positive,” Marques said. “The kids kept battling and gave them a game.
“The first half was not indicative of who we are. We’ve been fortunate enough to move the ball against some good teams. The second half was more of who we are.”
The TVL grind continues next week. Hilmar welcomes Escalon, reeling after a 28-14 loss to Hughson. Ripon travels to winless Mountain House.
“When you look at the top five teams in this league, anybody can beat anybody on any given night,” Johnson said. “There’s more parity in this league than I’ve seen in 15 years. ... You have to pick up wins when you can. You never know what the next week is going to bring.”