RIPON -- Almost exactly one year ago, the high schools in this growing San Joaquin County city celebrated the start of a rivalry 80 years in waiting -- the first varsity football meeting of Ripon High and Ripon Christian.
Ripon won that first game 61-12, and tonight's game again has the potential to be one-sided, but that's not the point. Indians and Knights coming together on a gridiron was an event with the long-term potential of uniting the city in an annual harvest-time athletic celebration, as long as petty differences didn't get in the way.
With that as a scene-setter, look at tonight's high school football schedule. It reads Ripon at Ripon Christian, to be played at Modesto Christian.
The final score already has been written: Petty 1, Ripon football community 0.
This is Ripon Christian's home game, one of six on this year's schedule. The Knights, in their fourth year of playing varsity football, do not have their own field, so they rent Ripon High's Stouffer Field for their home games. Well, for every home game except the one against their landlord.
"I have no idea why it's being played at MC," said John VanderSchaaf, RC's first-year head coach. "I took over in July and I was told right then it was going to be played at Modesto Christian. I just let it go, but I think it's a shame. It would be a great evening if we could have the game in Ripon."
The inaugural Ripon Bowl was not without controversy. With his team being dominated at halftime, soon-to-be-ex Ripon Christian coach Jeremy Byrd had his troops switch from their road jerseys to home threads to start the second half. It was a "this is our turf, too" statement that didn't sit well with anybody.
By the fourth quarter, coaches began yelling across the field at each other, with RC accusing Ripon of running up the score, and Indians coaches replying in kind. The hard feelings were enough to cause Ripon athletic director and football coach Chris Johnson to broach the site subject with RC athletic director Tiger Shelton at a TVL meeting last winter.
"When we talked about it, it was a mutual agreement to not play this year's game at Ripon High," Johnson said. "I thought it would avoid a lot of problems. There wasn't a whole lot of discussion. We wanted to avoid any possible confrontation. We spoke about it only for about two minutes."
Shelton remembers his chat with Johnson, but he recalls it as an ultimatum, not an agreement.
"There was no argument, but I was told that we weren't going to be allowed to play there and that was that," Shelton said. "I could guess at their reasons, but they're in control of the situation. I don't have a bargaining chip here and it's in my best interest to keep good relations with Ripon High because we need to use that field for our other home games."
Leo Zuber, superintendent of the Ripon Unified School District, said he found out the location of the game had been switched when he signed the facilities use request form in June. Zuber believes moving the game was entirely the choice of Ripon Christian.
"I don't know where Ripon Christian heard we didn't want the game," said Zuber. "Between last year's game and the time they submitted the use form, they must have decided they didn't want to play the game here because that game is not on the form."
Does it seem to you that this entire situation could have been resolved in a one-minute meeting?
RC: "It's our home game, so we'll pay the rent. We have fewer fans, so we'll sit on the visitors' side, as long as we get the gate receipts. Oh, and the first-down chains have to be on your side of the field, since you're technically the visitor."
Ripon: "OK. Hey let's work together to figure out a split of concessions."
RC and Ripon: "Done."
There is much more at stake here than the site or outcome of tonight's game or even the future of the rivalry. There is a very focused and energetic group of Riponites trying to raise $2 million to install artificial turf and a composite track at Stouffer Field.
To make this effort work, they need the entire community on board -- all Indians, all Knights and all between. But if these two schools can't agree on the site of a single football game, how can they ever expect their supporters to come together on a $2 million project?
Instead, the Indians and Knights are playing tonight in Salida.
Everyone in Ripon loses.
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.