Justin-Siena’s historic football success is often associated with the turn of the century, and rightfully so.
The program won six CIF North Coast Section titles in a 15-year span under former head coach Rich Cotruvo from 2000-2014.
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During that stretch, the Braves were a small school powerhouse. But to appreciate that success, one must remember how long it took to take that journey.
The program’s first section championship came way back in 1983. The Braves stormed to an 11-1 record under Dave Shipp to win the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division III title, capping the season with a 27-6 destruction of the Ripon Indians. Unless one is north of 45 years old, however, there is little recollection of the 1983 Braves.
“I was talking to someone the other day and told them that I was part of the first section championship,” Shipp said. “It was a Justin kid that graduated a few years ago. He goes, ‘When?’ I said, ‘1983.’ He looked at me like, ‘Is that like prehistoric times?’”
Shipp, who is retired from education and coaching, has a record of 83-64-1 as a head coach at St. Patrick-St. Vincent (1979-1980), Justin-Siena (1981-1986) and Vintage (1989-1993, 2011-2012). But he said his time at Justin remains uniquely fond to his heart, and the love goes beyond the fact that the Braves went 41-17-1 under his guidance.
“It speaks for my whole family,” Shipp said. “My daughter (Kate) was born when I was still teaching there. Her first teddy bear she got was from Justin-Siena people. For (wife) Mary and I, it’s big. We talk all the time about the impact it had on us.”
Besides Shipp, players Brian McGee, Andy Ryan and Tom Clark shared thoughts on the 1983 team. McGee and Ryan each graduated in 1984, and Clark in 1985.
McGee, who also played golf for the Braves, lives in Napa and recently began working for a startup company. Ryan, who competed in track and field for Justin, lives in Napa and operates a mobile wine bottling business. Clark, who also played three varsity basketball seasons for the Braves, lives in San Ramon and works as an operating partner for a private equity firm.
The Braves’ assistant coaches were defensive coordinator Wayne Mills, offensive coordinator Gary Rose, trainer/strength coach Edd Ghiringhelli, and videographer Ernie Nagy. Jon Conner and Fred Ryan were the line coaches. Conner later became a longtime assistant under Les Franco at both Napa and Vintage.
The previous season, the Braves went 7-2 overall and 4-2 in a Superior California Athletic League that would disband in 2000.
That 1982 season, with Angelo Valenzuela under center, the Braves were a pass-oriented team thanks to Valenzuela’s strong arm and quick release.
In 1983, the Braves became ground-oriented because quarterback Steve Ripple was more of an option quarterback. The backfield featured a three-headed monster with Bill Towle, Jim Metzger and Ryan. With Ripple also being a smart and accurate passer, the receiving corps of Dave Lafontaine, Brian Nagy and Clark could beat opponents overly concerned with the running game. The offensive line featured Bob Honer, Tony Baldini, Dave Rowley, Jerry Durham, McGee and versatile tight end Joe Tichy. The offense operated out of the Slot-I formation mixed with pro sets.
On defense, the Braves ran a 5-2 base front and a Cover 2. Shipp said Justin was one of just a few teams running that coverage at the time. Buoyed by a menacing defensive line of Mark Aguirre, Wolf Reitzenstein, Honer and McGee, linebackers Mike Quaglia and Rod Bise could dictate the game. Eli Lopez and Lafontaine manned the cornerback spots. They were outstanding in pass coverage and defended against the run like extra linebackers. At safety, Nagy and Clark made sure receivers did not beat the last line of defense.
Ryan was named SCAL Most Valuable Player and Shipp was the SCAL Coach of the Year. Ripple, Towle, Metzger, Lafontaine, McGee, Honer, Tichy and Nagy were first-team All-SCAL, while Quaglia received honorable mention. Lafontaine became the school’s all-time leading receiver, breaking Joel Miroglio’s mark set in 1976-1977.
The question begs: Did the players and coaches see this success coming beforehand?
“We had an idea that this team could be good,” Ryan said. “There were several returning starters in the senior class. Once we were about halfway through the season, it became clear there was a chance to win out.”
Being a good team is one thing, but winning a section title can also involve needing other stars to align.
“I think we knew we were going to be good,” Clark said, “but I don’t believe any of us thought we would eventually win the section title.”
Shipp pointed to the team’s three-way scrimmage between Cardinal Newman of Santa Rosa and Terra Linda as a sure sign that the 1983 Braves could be a special team, because they did everything right that day. In the season opener, Justin lost to Hogan of Vallejo 21-20 despite jumping out to a 14-0 lead. After that game, the Braves did not lose until the fall of 1984.
“We were in control of the game, they returned a kickoff for a touchdown, and things went south on us,” Shipp said. “I still think to this day we lost that game more than Hogan beat us. I said, ‘Guys, you’re good. You need to realize it.’ We had some good leadership on that team. Steve Ripple was an incredible leader. Andy Ryan and Bob Honer took the bull by the horns and said, ‘Guys, we’re going to win.’ It was a blue-collar school in those days.”
Added Ryan, “I think the Hogan loss was the best thing that happened to this team. We were frustrated by the loss and I think it refocused us as a team.”
Those days also represented a different dynamic because only a certain number of teams, regardless of record, qualified for the playoffs. In today’s format, league champions get an automatic bid with nonleague champs applying for at-large bids.
“You had to do well in your league to get into the playoffs,” Shipp said. “I think there was a three-way tie for second place in the league. We had to vote that off. Those teams all had decent records. In today’s game, those teams are in the playoffs.
“The SCAL was such a dominating league. A few years later, the southern schools voted that they did not want to compete against the SCAL, so you had a southern and northern small schools championship. It was a good little league. It was a shame that it had to disband. Benicia got too big.”
Here are a few other compelling topics about the 1983 Braves:
In Week 4, Justin dominated state-ranked Dixon 48-14. One week later, the team pulled away from Vanden for a 34-14 win — in a game that was tied 14-14 after three quarters. The Braves destroyed John Swett of Crockett 52-8 and, coupled with Vanden's 8-0 win over Benicia, the team clinched the SCAL title.
The seminal moments for the team, however, were two wins over Oak Ridge of El Dorado Hills, 21-19 in the regular season and 21-15 in overtime of the SJS Division III playoffs.
“Definitely the Oak Ridge games were defining moments in the season,” Clark said. “Frankly, they were the best team we played during the season.”
The semifinal win came in quagmire conditions at Braves Field. With 4:29 left in regulation, Towle scored from a yard away and Ripple connected with Tichy for the two-point conversion pass to tie the game 15-15. The touchdown involved a fake to the fullback and halfback, which ran into the flat with Tichy in the corner of the end zone.
Entering overtime, at the suggestion of his assistants, Shipp added that if the Braves won the coin toss, they would send the offense out to the field. Because of the rain, the Braves had just one dry football remaining. Ripple connected with Clark for the go-ahead touchdown but the extra point was no good, making it 21-15 Justin. With the Braves’ defense on the field, a defensive pass interference call on second down gave Oak Ridge the ball at the Justin 1-yard line. But the Braves stiffened and stopped the Trojans on four straight running plays.
Oak Ridge thought it had scored.
“They were just livid,” Shipp said. “They swore they scored. They were going crazy. I can’t see anything. I’m at the 30-yard line. The lines are gone. We stopped them. I got a letter the week after we won the section demanding that I forfeit our game and give them the section title. The coaches wrote it. They said they had proof, that they had a writer down there and he showed them scoring. I called the Sacramento Bee. They did not cover the game. Bob Herlocker was at the game and he was on the sideline and said, ‘They didn’t score.’”
To this day, Shipp remains surprised that the Trojans did not try to throw a tight pop pass to 6-foot-4 tight Greg Frank, matched up on the 5-7 Lafontaine.
“We had our hands full,” McGee said. “We knew they were a good team and we had already beaten them. The field was so sloppy. It could have gone either way. We were just focused and determined to win that game.”
The team’s 27-6 title game win over Ripon had an anticlimatic feel. Justin trailed 6-0 at halftime but scored on four of its six second-half possessions to flummox the Indians. Ripon running back Tom West, who went on to play two years at BYU, needed 90 yards to reach the 4,000 mark for his career. The Braves defense held him to 29 yards on 11 carries.
“I think our success goes back to the group we had playing sports together from Pop Warner to Napa Fly League,” McGee said. “I think our freshman year we knew we had a great group of driven guys. When we were sophomores, we were the upperclassmen on the JV team. We knew we had a lot of potential. Coach Shipp made us really focus on having a winning attitude. We knew we had good athletes and loved playing, practicing, working out.”
There was no social media, which meant that a coach did not have to worry about a youngster putting out an idiotic post on Twitter. The internet was not on the radar. Video games consisted of Atari, but were not a central figure in a kid’s life. So, was the athletic arena like a sanctuary?
“I’m not sure I would use the term ‘sanctuary,’ but it was a very important part of my school and social life,” Ryan said.
In a nutshell, this team enjoyed preparing to win as much as the act of winning.
“For me, the thrill of competing was always an emotional high,” Clark said. “Hell, I loved practice. The fact that I could do it in front of a crowd made it even more addicting. I wish everyone could experience the roar of the crowd after a great play at least once.”
Adding uniqueness to this version of Justin football success was that in this era, kids did not see game films until Monday. Today, with tools like the Hudl website, game footage is instantaneously available. The Braves also played their home games on Saturday afternoons. While most people see Saturday afternoon and high school football as an odd couple, Shipp used it to his team’s advantage. The Braves did not begin playing Friday night home games until 1998.
“The great thing about those days was that we played our home games on Saturday afternoon so we got an extra day of practice,” Shipp said. “Thursdays were always devoted to stuff like goal line offense and defense, two-minute offense, two-minute defense. Those are things that are hard to practice in a conventional week. We were really good in those areas. It made for long weeks. We did not do much on Mondays. We went through our game plan. By the end of the season, we had an extra week of practice.”
The Vine Valley Athletic League was formed in 2018, comprising Napa, Vintage, Justin-Siena, American Canyon, Petaluma, Casa Grande and Sonoma Valley. In the early 1980s, American Canyon was not on the radar as the school was not built until 2010. In 1982, the Big Game between Napa and Vintage featured a battle of unbeaten teams to go along with Justin’s 7-2 season.
The Napa Indians, now known as the Grizzlies, and Vintage Crushers were also high achievers in 1983. Napa went 4-4-1 overall and 3-2-1 in the Monticello Empire League, missing the SJS AAA playoffs based on a tiebreaker to Vacaville. Vintage went 8-4 overall and won the MEL title by going 5-1 in league play. The Crushers also reached the SJS AAA title game, losing to Christian Brothers of Sacramento, 15-12.
“I remember years later when I coached at Vintage and Jon Conner was there, we were struggling a little bit,” Shipp said. “Jon goes, ‘I know what we need.’ He looks at me and says, ‘We need Brian McGee, Bob Honer, etc.’ He was the offensive line coach from that year. It would have been interesting to play them. At one point, the year before, the three schools were 21-0. The Sacramento Bee did a story about it.”
While all three schools play each other now, in those years, Napa and Vintage crossed paths with Justin in football only in a scrimmage format.
Neither Shipp nor McGee predicted what the outcome would or might have been, but both would have been intrigued to play those Napa or Vintage teams in a real game.
“We would have loved the chance to play them,” McGee said. “They had great athletes in that era. It would have been fun to try to compete against them. We would have been confident going in. They were the bigger programs, but it would have been a great opportunity.”
It is often said that playing on a team is not necessarily about the success within the athletic arena, but the bond that is formed during the playing days and many years after the fact.
“We were a fairly close-knit group,” Ryan said. “I think more than anything else was a sense of trust between teammates. There was always the sense that the guy lined up next to you was going to do his job and have your back on every play.”
Clark said the relationship also had far-reaching effects, not only within the subgroup of one’s graduating class but throughout the program.
“I recall a ton of mutual respect for one another, however, the seniors stayed within their circle of friends and the juniors stayed within our circle of friends,” Clark said. “We would hang out (as a team) at parties. I still keep in touch with Pat Gleeson, Dave Ripple (Steve’s younger brother), and John Holden, and, of course, my younger brother, Rick, who was the only freshman on the team. I would love an opportunity to see the entire team again.”
Though 1983 is 38 years ago, mathematically, for this version of Braves football, it is like 38 minutes ago when they get together.
“There are quite a few of us still in the area,” McGee said. “We keep in pretty close contact. Any time we see each other, it’s just like the day after we graduated from high school. We’re friends for life.”
For Shipp, the opportunity to coach this team was rewarding not only as it related to football but seeing the players’ success off the field.
“I see these kids around — OK, they’re not kids, they are 50 plus years old — but I look at them and they have been very successful in life,” he said. “They were fun to be around. They put up with a young coach that was wound pretty tight. I was in my early 30s then.”
Shipp added that it was a refreshing team to coach because the players combined their physical abilities with intellect and discipline.
“Ripple sometimes called his own plays,” Shipp said. “We had signs for certain plays. He’d give me a sign and I’d wave at him and say ‘Go ahead.’ Gary would be in the press box and say, ‘Did you call it? I didn’t hear it.’ I’d say, ‘I don’t know.’
“That team had a high level of intellect. I was talking to Andy Ryan one day and he said, ‘If we saw something, you would listen to us.’ These were smart kids. When you have smart kids, you have to listen to them.”
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