RIPON — Speaking Spanish won't help Isaac Norman rush for more yards or catch more passes this fall, but Ripon Christian's agile running back has other goals in mind.
Norman's taking Advanced Placement Spanish, a college-level course, because he realizes his last carry this season could be the last of his career.
Elusive, but undersized, he is looking past football and to the future. Being bilingual in California, Norman knows, is going to be a workplace asset.
"Academics has been a priority since I enrolled at Ripon Christian and AP Spanish is a big part of it," Norman said.
Football remains important, as well, as Norman gets stronger and faster each fall. He was one of the Trans-Valley League's top runners as a junior, averaging nine yards a carry and 26 yards a catch. His 91 runs and 16 receptions led to 16 TDs, or a score every 6.7 times he touched the ball.
Norman might have scored more, but fatigue often forced coach John Vander Schaaf to rest the Knight's big-play threat.
"He would have great runs in his first seven or eight carries, but then he'd tire," said Vander Schaaf, who hopes to get the ball to Norman twice as often this year. "To Isaac's credit, endurance became his big emphasis this off-season."
Lifting, running and exercises to increase his flexibility were part of Norman's program. Not only did he want to be stronger, but bigger. He's put on about 12 pounds since turning in his gear last year, without sacrificing his speed.
"Isaac's a dynamic back in the open field," Vander Schaaf said. "He's as good as we have in this area with the ball in his hands and space."
Norman had TD runs of 77, 61 and 52 yards last fall, along with five catches of at least 44 yards. That included a thrilling, 92-yard TD reception in RC's 21-13 upset of Hughson.
Norman's increased endurance isn't the only change for RC: The Knights are in the Southern League, following four difficult seasons battling in the Trans-Valley League.
RC was winless in 12 games against the "Big Three" of Escalon and Modesto Christian and Ripon. It lost those games by a combined 603-82 and the closest was a 31-point spread.
RC's low numbers contributed to those big numbers: It's enrollment is 250, a third of the average for the TVL's other schools. The average SL school has about 500 kids.
The Knights had 17 players in uniform last fall, but hope to have at least 22 this season.
"Depth was a problem, particularly in the second half of the season when you start to get injuries," Vander Schaaf said. "On top of that, Escalon, Modesto Christian and Ripon all are successful programs."
Escalon is No. 2 in the Stanislaus District with a winning percentage of 83.6 and Modesto Christian is sixth at 70.6.
RC will have its hands full with Mariposa, Le Grand and Denair — the SL's version of the Big Three — but those schools don't boast the depth of the larger TVL schools.
"We're excited about being in the Southern League," said Aaron Fay, a third-year starter at receiver and inside linebacker. "We kept Ripon and Linden on the schedule, so we will have a few big games to get us ready for league play."
The Knights will get a good feel for the SL during Week 4 when they visit Le Grand — the defending champion and the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 6 runner-up last season.