OAKDALE — It was a bittersweet end to the baseball season for Ripon Christian High coach John De Visser, who guided the Knights to their best season in school history.
Once he finished congratulating his seniors, including RC's top two hitters and pitchers, De Visser turned his attention to the 2011 campaign.
"We played for the Trans-Valley League title the final day of the season, and no RC team had been that close," De Visser said. "Now we've got to show we can do it again."
Lacking depth and losing seven starters to graduation, there might not be a team in the Stanislaus District with more at stake this summer.
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RC traditionally had struggled in baseball, but made the playoffs two of the last three seasons. It met Escalon the final day to decide the TVL title, after beating the Cougars a day before to force a winner-take-all championship game.
"If I didn't think we would be capable of building a championship program, I wouldn't have taken the job," said De Visser, heading into his second season. "The experience we get from playing summer ball can help up us to a title."
RC also will be helped by its move to the Southern League — which means no more Escalon, Central Catholic, Patterson or Linden in the playoffs.
The SL lacks the pitching depth and potent lineups featured in the TVL, and RC is a likely contender for the title.
Before De Visser can worry about winning a title, though, he has to make sure that his inexperienced Knights know what it takes to win games.
"I have about one month to teach these kids about situational baseball," he said, "before they go to basketball in July and football in August."
With a small pool of talent — RC's enrollment is about 250 — coaches are used to sharing athletes during the summer.
De Visser's summer season consists of just 10 games. It's a short schedule compared to first-tier programs such as Escalon or Oakdale, but 10 games more than RC played in 2008.
"We played our first summer season last year and you could see the impact it made during the season," De Visser said. "We spend a month now on fundamentals, game situations and theories of pitching and we're two months ahead when the next season starts."
The Knights need every day they can get, because De Visser must get two junior starters and a sophomore catcher ready for the varsity season.
Colby De Vries and Kalvin Prins have the pedigree to be successful — their older brothers were the two pitchers this spring — but neither threw a single pitch with the varsity. They need to throw regularly to boost their arm strength and refine secondary pitches.
Catcher Dominic Nelson also needs work framing pitches for the tighter varsity strike zones, as well as keeping mental notes on opposing hitters.
It can be a struggle, though, just to put a team on the field.
RC suited up just eight kids against Oakdale on Thursday in the Lee Hampson Tournament, but the benefit was every one got seven innings in the field and three to four at-bats.
While many of the district's elite kids are on travel teams that play across Northern California and out of state, mid-tier players often are playing on school-sponsored teams like the ones in the Hampson.
Any opportunity is valued.
With just 13 or 14 players in the program, RC might not have a JV squad next season. It means freshmen and sophomores would go direct to varsity, making the summer activities even more important.
"We practice an hour or so before games, and we do a lot of teaching when the kids get back in the dugout," De Visser said. "I have one, or maybe two kids playing travel ball, so they're not getting the innings that a kid from Escalon or Oakdale does in summer."