First off, it’s pronounced “rip-in.” Not “rip-own” or “ripe-own” or “ripe-in” or “re-pown.” “Rip-in.”
As a Division VI school that can easily be overlooked by its small nature, these things need to be clarified. Ripon Christian basketball might not have the name recognition of some of the other top programs in Northern California, but the Knights have dominated their division over the past few years.
As Northern California champions in the lone division that lacks a Southern counterpart, the Knights were the lone team in the state to win a regional championship with the knowledge that it would be their final game, a title they claimed in convincing fashion with a 79-42 win over top-seeded Weed.
The championship victory was the latest of triumphs for a program that had established itself well as a small-school power, not by reeling in transfers, but rather through a strong community that has families and kids involved from a young age.
“We have a lot of former players who are dads that train their kids from very young ages,” head coach Mark Hofman said. “That’s how we overcome our small numbers. We have under 200 high school students (Ripon Christian serves students from preschool through high school) and we don’t recruit. Most of our kids have been there since kindergarten.”
As is the case in many small communities, there are a couple of families ruling the roost at Ripon Christian. In particular, the name Van Groningen is tied closely to the program, with four cousins from the family playing for the NorCal champs and bloodlines through the coaching staff. Junior forward Braden Van Groningen was named Trans Valley League co-MVP and posted 24 double-doubles across 33 games. His father, Bryan, runs the team’s summer program, and his cousins, Jacob and Lukas, are in the lineup as well alongside Joel Heimstra, whose mother also comes from the now legendary Van Groningen clan.
“In the NorCal game, the broadcaster said, ‘Van Groningen rebounds the ball, who outlets it to Van Groningen. He passes the ball to Van Groningen, who shoots the three, and it’s good,’” Hofman fondly recalled.
When the Knights defeated Stockton Christian at the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI Championship at the Golden 1 Center, the family ties were evident as they played part of the game with a lineup of three Van Groningens and the two Terpsma brothers, Caleb and Eli. A freshman who was called up from the JV roster midway through the season, Eli will be part of the program for three more years, and with Braden set for one more season as well, the future is incredibly bright for Ripon Christian. The Division VI title may have just been the beginning, as it would be fair to expect the Knights to play in Division V next year.
That Division VI title wasn’t a foregone conclusion, though. Hofman specifically pointed to two games at in mid-December as a major point of development for the Knights, first losing to Amador in the championship game of the Argonaut Quarterback Club Tournament and then topping Modesto in overtime the following Friday.
“We played hard for the entire game except for about a minute and a half,” Hofman said of the 56-52 loss to the Buffaloes. “We learned as a team that it literally takes 32 minutes of effort from everybody in order to win. Starters, subs and bench guys are all important. After that game, I never saw us play tentatively or with low effort.”
The lessons from that game were on display against the Panthers, where Sean McGovern, primarily a football player who didn’t play basketball as a junior, came off the bench to play ferocious defense and help erase an eight-point deficit in the final two minutes, leading to a 57-52 overtime win.
“We didn’t quit when many teams could have,” Hofman said. “When a guy like Sean, who doesn’t play a lot, is willing to stay focused in practice and during games, that’s a full team that’s ready to support each other.”
That support continued throughout the entire year, highlighted by the outbursts of joy on Reed Van der Hoek’s game-winning tip-in to defeat South Tahoe at the Oakdale Rotary Tournament and across the entire community, where the team felt like it was supported by an army of thousands, culminating in a group of well-wishers sending the team bus off before crushing Weed in the NorCal final.
“Ripon is a great town,” Hofman said. “I couldn’t go to the store, work, church, anywhere, without people wanting to talk about the team.”
That support will likely continue next season, especially with a team that graduates just two seniors in McGovern and Jacob Van Groningen, who has committed to play volleyball at Vanguard University. It’s set to be a year to remember for the entire town of Ripon, with Ripon High returning its top two scorers in Malik Taylor and Bronson Burrow. When the Knights and Indians battle, RC will be looking to avenge the two losses from this year that forced the teams into a tie for the league title, and when that game does roll around, it’ll certainly be played before an energized crowd full of familiar faces and families that have been part of the local scene for generations.
“Ripon High’s coach, Justin Graham, was one of the best players around,” Hofman said of his crosstown rival. “He was approached by top schools, and he basically said, ‘Ripon is my home. I’m staying right here.’”
Yes, one of the Van Groningens will be playing college volleyball when the teams play for both Trans Valley League supremacy and crosstown bragging rights, but the way things seem to work in Ripon, nobody ever seems to stray far from the pack.