If the 2023 CIF Volleyball Division III State playoffs taught us anything, it’s this: the Ripon Christian Knights are not a 13 seed.
After winning the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship, the Knights were bumped into the Division III state bracket. They beat all four NorCal opponents, dropping just one set, and returned to Santiago Canyon College in Orange on Saturday, Nov. 18, looking to beat Redwood of Visalia for their second straight state title.
The Knights won the 2022 Division IV state championship, sweeping Central Valley Christian of Visalia, and Saturday’s match was similar.
After winning two competitive sets, the Knights made quick work of the Rangers in the third, sweeping the Southern California regional champions 26-24, 25-19 and 25-15 to claim back-to-back state championships.
“(We’re) just very excited and a little bit shocked,” said Knights coach Kayla Kootstra. “Not shocked that we won but just that we did it two years in a row and won in three and, honestly, it was kind of a very fitting end to a really amazing season. It’s been fun to celebrate.”
— Ripon Christian Athletics (@RCKnights) November 18, 2023
The match looked like it would be a dogfight as the Knights and Rangers battled in a back-and-forth opening set.
Redwood jumped out to a 12-7 early lead but the Knights outscored the Southern California champions 10-4. A kill by Leah Van Wyngarden gave Ripon Christian a 17-16 lead, forcing a Redwood timeout. The teams traded points for the rest of the set. Knights hitters mixed up their attacks and showed strong serving, while the Rangers showed tough defense at the net.
The Knights fell behind 24-22 but forced the set into extra points. They ended the set scoring four unanswered points aided by kills from Sydney Hoffman and Jordan Vander Veen.
“When I called our first timeout, I told them all, ‘We have to take a breath. It’s just like any other game,’” Kootstra said. “Being able to pull out a win when you’re down to set points, to come back and win four points in a row then sort of gave us the momentum and I think a little bit the confidence that we needed to get back into the rhythm of our game.”
After an 8-8 tie in the second set, Ripon Christian scored three straight points, forcing Redwood coach Alana Montgomery to call a timeout. Redwood fought back into the set, tying it at 13 and again at 15. Strong serving from Allison Brown and efficient offense facilitated by Megan Weststeyn helped the Knights open up a 22-15 advantage late in the second set, allowing them to pull away and take a 2-0 lead in the match.
The Knights seemingly won every key rally during the first two sets. They won jousts at the net, picked up attacks from Redwood hitters and slowly wore down their opponent.
“All postseason, our girls have really picked up our defensive play and that has allowed us to stay in long rallies,” Kootstra said. “We have hitters who are consistent and also know when they need to put the ball away and how to do that.”
By the third set, the Knights had worn down the Rangers. In a run that included aces from Vander Veen, strong back row passing and kills by Van Wyngarden, Ripon Christian turned a 4-4 tie into a 16-8 lead. They led by as many as 10 points, 22-12, late before coasting to the match win.
“We reduced (errors) drastically and just started picking it up. Our overall game had settled in by that point,” Kootstra said.
Van Wyngarden finished with a team-high 13 kills and added 10 digs. Vander Veen added 11 kills and a team-high 20 digs. Weststeyn led the team with 32 assists and added 12 digs and Brown finished with 14 digs.
The Knights are now 3-0 in state championship matches. In 1999, they captured their first, with Kootstra and current assistant Melissa Blanco as players. Last season they returned after a drought of more than 20 years, and this season added to an already full trophy case.
“I think it’s kind of surreal,” Kootstra said. “They moved us up to D-III this year and we weren’t sure what that was going to look like or how that would go. We knew we had a good team, but having a good team doesn’t always guarantee wins. There’s lots of other good teams out there. ... I think it’s just a testament to the players that we’ve had come through to just the overall quality of Ripon Christian’s volleyball program historically.”
The Division III state title is the perfect ending for the high school careers of seven Knights seniors.
In the past two seasons, Brown, Hoffman, Van Wyngarden, Weststeyn, Vander Veen, Maddie Yonker and Dayna Koolhaas have gone 72-11 overall with a perfect 28-0 record in Southern League contests, won back-to-back Division V and IV Sac-Joaquin Section championships and finished as back-to-back D-IV and D-III state champions. During their 2023 section and state postseason runs, the Knights lost just one set. They have led the program to 17 straight match victories, winning 51 sets and dropping just five.
“They’ve set a high bar for what Ripon Christian volleyball can look like,” Kootstra said of the senior class. “They also have done a great job, especially this year, of transitioning to be leaders for the underclassmen and to showing the work ethic and the intensity and the determination that it takes to be successful, but also to be supportive and encouraging other teammates at the same time.
“It’s been a really fun year and it has gone by really quick and we’re sad to see them go, but I’m also excited for the success that we’ve had. Not just on the court, but off the court and how the girls have all come together. It’s a memorable season, probably even more so because of that.”