The Stone Ridge Christian High School football team has gained national attention for its impenetrable defense.
Amazingly, the Knights have shut out nine consecutive opponents — a streak that spans 36 quarters and has included a headline on the USA Today website.
But coach Art DeJager believes the true marvel of this rising Division VII power is the type of players bringing the Knights success. His roster isn’t littered with college prospects or physical specimens.
At the Knights’ core, DeJager said, are a bunch of “scrawny, 140-pound kids.”
Stone Ridge Christian is a campus of only 161 students – second-smallest only to Modesto Christian (160) in the Sac-Joaquin Section – creating a shallow talent pool for DeJager to troll.
The Knights have balanced that handicap with an emphasis on their offseason workout program, turning these once 140-pound kids into a group of tough-minded, brawny champions.
And as far as champions go, Stone Ridge Christian is part of exclusive company. The Knights are one of two teams set to defend a small-school section championship this weekend. The other is Bear River in Division V.
The Knights (10-1) will take on Central California Athletic Alliance rival Big Valley Christian (10-2) on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Lincoln High in Stockton.
Stone Ridge Christian won the first meeting 37-0 on Sept. 25. After a first-round bye, the Knights rolled over another CCAA opponent, Millennium of Tracy, 66-0 in the semifinals.
“We are humbled, blessed and honored to be here,” DeJager said. “I, myself, am humbled, honored and blessed to coach this Knights football team. We don’t have a bunch of blue-chip athletes or those special skill players that the large schools got. We don’t recruit. We just put these guys to work.”
They have the callouses to prove it, too. With the help of his son, Anthony DeJager, a former football player at Azusa Pacific University, the DeJagers have revolutionized the Knights’ strength and conditioning program.
Anthony DeJager is the owner of CrossFit Merced, and the concept of functional fitness movements has helped transform the scrawny into strong.
It’s hard to argue the results.
Stone Ridge Christian increased its win total in each of DeJager’s three seasons, improving from 3-7 in 2012 to 5-6 in 2013. Last season, the Knights went 11-2 and raised the program’s first blue banner. On Saturday, Stone Ridge Christian can match its 2014 win total while clinching a regional bowl berth.
The Knights boast three 1,000-yard rushers, all of whom are averaging better than 10 yards per carry. Austin Rees has 1,166 yards and 18 touchdowns, while junior Jonathan Collazo has 1,340 yards and 15 scores.
The smallest of the bunch, 5-foot-9, 150-pound Shane Casillas, is nearing the 2,000-yard plateau. He has a team-best 1,871 yards and 26 touchdowns. With another strong game, he can become the third player in the Stanislaus District this season to eclipse 2,000 yards, joining Orestimba’s Austin Martins and Gustine’s Brandon LaBry.
However, defense has been the Knights’ calling card and the reason for the national spotlight.
Since giving up 69 points in its first two games, Stone Ridge Christian has blanked its last nine opponents. The last team to score on the Knights was Ripon Christian, a Division VI semifinalist. In that Sept. 4 contest, the Knights surrendered a 21-0 lead and lost 35-28.
“After that, our team came together. They said, ‘We’re done with this. We’re going to play tough football and not let up,’ ” said DeJager, whose bald head stands in direct contrast to his bushy beard. He hasn’t shaved since the streak began.
“We don’t believe in luck. We keep things simple. We don’t try to pull a rabbit out of the hat. We do what we do and come right at you.”
The last team to post a shutout in a section final was Grant with a 50-0 victory over Union Mine in Division II in 2006.
Big Valley Christian coach Tim Giannosa has witnessed the evolution of the CCAA’s resident bully. Stone Ridge Christian has won 13 of its last 14 league games, including three straight against the Lions by an average score of 39-6.
Big Valley Christian’s last victory in the rivalry came in 2012 – the year DeJager began working with his once-scrawny senior class.
“They’ve done some really impressive things this year,” Giannosa said. “They’re a very good team. That coaching staff, I think this is their third season in there, and we saw a change in that program immediately.
“They’re not the strongest team or the fastest team. They’re a working-class group like us.”
Stanislaus District prep football glance
No. 3 Inderkum at No. 2 Oakdale
No. 5 Placer at No. 1 Central Catholic
No. 4 Liberty Ranch vs. No. 3 Sierra (at Elk Grove High School, 6 p.m.)
No. 6 Bear River vs. No. 1 Sonora (at Elk Grove High School, 1 p.m.)
No. 2 Bradshaw Christian vs. No. 1 Hilmar (at Lincoln High School, 6 p.m.)
Big Valley Christian vs. Stone Ridge Christian (at Lincoln High School, 1 p.m.)
Section final preview glance
Tuesday: Stone Ridge Christian looks to repeat as Division VII champ
Wednesday: Big Valley Christian pours foundation for success
Thursday: Hilmar will have hands full with Bradshaw Christian pass rush
Friday: Sonora coach last link to 1995 section championship team
Saturday: Sierra, Liberty Ranch overcome adversity to reach D-IV final