RIPON -- The most difficult part of playing football with 20 players on the active roster is practicing.
Think about it. You never can go 11 on 11. Because you have so many two-way players your athletes seldom will be challenged in practice.
That's the situation the Ripon Christian High School varsity team has faced nearly each day of the season, and to say they've adjusted and adapted would be an understatement.
The Knights went 0-10 last season. This year, despite the small turnout and a nonconference schedule featuring four of the five teams that beat them in 2007, RC is 5-0.
"We have to use our imagination in practice, and that's for sure," head coach John Vander Schaaf said. "First, we figure out as a staff what we need to teach the players, and often we have to break things into segments -- teaching the line first while the backs serve as the scout line, then we switch it around. It's a real challenge, but that's what we have to work with."
The Knights enter Trans-Valley League play this week confident and realistic. Their first challenge comes Saturday night when they meet Escalon at Ripon High.
"We're a lot more confident, and we've gained some momentum," junior fullback and linebacker Josiah Neeley said. "But we know we still have a lot of work to do to get ready for the TVL. I'm not going to say anything is going to be easy, or even easier, for us just because we're better."
Ripon Christian has adjusted to its small numbers on a daily basis. It lost senior lineman-linebacker Trevor Glasgow early to a knee injury.
And late in Monday's practice, offensive line coach Robert Kissee -- playing quarterback for the scout team -- stepped on a football while rolling out to pass and suffered a severe knee injury.
So while this is a team familiar with adversity, nothing is more difficult than going through a winless season.
"But even last year, we worked on character-building," Vander Schaaf said. "Our emphasis was on building young Christian men through football. It took a lot of the sting out of losing because we could see the progress of the guys who were playing. As the season went on, it was a better team and the guys became better teammates. We have a lot of good character kids, and as luck would have it, some of them can play football."
The team actually came together under the duress of a winless season, according to Vander Schaaf, and created a work ethic that carried it into offseason workouts.
"Going 0-10 is not very good, and that made me work harder and gave me incentive to go into the next season," Neeley said. "I've tried to forget about that season, but before I forgot about it, I made sure to learn from it."
Admittedly, RC has benefitted from its schedule. Delhi and Denair are winless. On the other hand, RC's 9-7 victory over Bradshaw Christian of Sacramento is that school's lone loss, and the Knights beat Turlock Christian and Waterford -- teams that handled RC easily last season.
"Some of those schools admittedly are down this year," Vander Schaaf said. "Turlock Christian had a wonderful team last year -- the kind of team you don't get very often. Denair is down. But I would disagree with anybody who would say that Waterford isn't a good team."
Because of the hard work and camaraderie shown by the Knights in the offseason, they expected to be better in 2008. But 5-0?
"I knew things would come together, so I'm still not surprised," senior two-way starter Will Heersink said. "Well, I guess being 5-0 is a little surprising, but I knew we'd be better."
Now for the reality check -- the TVL schedule. The Knights figure to be able to match up physically only with Riverbank in their next five games.
"We know we haven't seen anybody like Escalon, MC or Ripon," Vander Schaaf said. "We're not dumb. We realize that. So far, we've passed all the tests that we've been given, so we'll see what the next tests bring. We can't worry about our opponents, we can only worry about ourselves, and when you only have 20 kids there's not a lot to worry about."
Well, after Monday's practice, the Knights do have another worry. They need another healthy body for practice.
Said Vander Schaaf, "Maybe we can put an ad in the paper for a scout-team quarterback."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.