UCD senior in leading role

Isaiah Thomas has been worth his weight in yards as a punt returner for UC Davis. That might come as a surprise to anyone who checks statistics for Big Sky Conference teams. Thomas ranks sixth with an average of 6.6 yards per return and that is only after a 31-yard return last Saturday in a 60-27 victory over Dixie State.

Head coach Dan Hawkins can live with Thomas’ paltry average when it comes to measuring the senior’s effectiveness as a punt returner after three games this season. Hawkins would much rather think of how many yards Thomas can save the Aggies by catching a punt instead of letting the ball bounce and roll away.

“We don’t call (Thomas) the punt returner. We call him the punt catcher,” Hawkins said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. He was joined by Thomas and associate head coach Cha’pelle Brown. “Pretty much every time the ball hits the ground, you’re going to lose an average of 19 yards. Every time he catches one, that’s (an advantage of) 19 yards before (the offense) even starts.”

Isaiah Thomas

Every yard will count for UC Davis on Saturday when the Aggies battle Weber State in Ogden, Utah. UC Davis is ranked 12th and Weber State 15th in the FCS Coaches Poll. The Wildcats are the four-time defending Big Sky champions and claimed the title outright for the first time in the spring by going 5-0. Weber State shared the title with UC Davis and Eastern Washington in 2018. And there were plenty of folks at the time that thought the Aggies were not deserving because they did not play the Wildcats three years ago.

A shocking loss to Northern Arizona cost Weber State the outright title in 2018 because the Wildcats beat Eastern Washington, which crushed UC Davis 59-20. All those folks who questioned whether the Aggies were worthy of sharing the championship might have gotten their answer in 2019 when Weber State paid a visit to UC Davis and came away with a 36-20 victory. The Aggies had just 44 yards rushing in the loss, their lowest total on the ground since staggering to 13 yards four years ago in a 41-3 loss to … Weber State.

Hawkins looks forward to the day when Weber State returns to Davis. The rivals clashed in Ogden last March with Weber State pulling out an 18-15 victory and will do so again just 195 days later. “I should have bought a condo there,” Hawkins quipped. “We’re very used to the hotel there, the field there and the trip there.”

Weber State fans will have to be at their best to match the electricity in Davis last Saturday night. Fans returned to UC Davis Health Stadium for the first time since 2019 and 9,865 enjoyed an impressive performance by the Aggies. Ulonzo Gilliam rushed for 186 yards and three touchdowns. The junior also caught one of Hunter Rodrigues’ two touchdown passes. The defense contributed to the victory by intercepting five passes for the first time since 1985.

“It was magical here at the stadium on Saturday night. The stands were packed,” Hawkins said. “Our guys didn’t disappoint.”

Thomas energized the Aggies during pregame warmups by stomping and hollering in front of his teammates. He has stepped out front this season as one of four team captains. That Thomas has become a leader does not surprise Brown, who played for Hawkins at Colorado and was hired by UC Davis in 2017.

“I didn’t wait until he became a captain to tell him that he’s a leader. I told him that years ago,” said Brown, who works with Thomas and the other defensive backs. “But you have to do it the right way to be the captain. That’s why he’s the captain now because he does exactly what we ask him to do. And he’s doing it at a high level.”

Brown made it clear what he expects from the defensive backs. “To have been here for five years and seen the guys develop,” he said, “there are no more excuses.”

Thomas makes no excuses for his punt return average because saving yards for the Aggies is more than important than trying to break a return for a touchdown. “I’m definitely aggressive when it comes to catching a punt,” he said. “It’s harder for the offense to get going when we’re backed up. My goal is if I can get there, I’m going to catch it.”

As a starting safety and return specialist, Thomas has been quite a catch for the Aggies.

Sac State turns tight end loose

Troy Taylor has some nerve to think he can get away with saying Marshel Martin might be the best tight end in college football. The Sacramento State coach has apparently spent far too days out in the sun without a cap on his bald head. The Sporting News ranked the top 25 college tight ends in the country and Martin did not make the cut, so Taylor might want to pipe down.

Martin can prove Taylor has not lost all of his marbles this season by matching or surpassing his productivity as a freshman in 2019. Martin bolted out of the starting gate last Saturday in St. George, Utah with seven receptions for 56 yards and two touchdowns in the Hornets’ 19-7 victory at Dixie State.

Marshel Martin

It took the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Martin all of one game in 2021 to set a career high for receptions. He accounted for more than one third of the 19 passes completed by quarterbacks Asher O’Hara (13-of-21) and Jake Dunniway (6-of-9). O’Hara started in his debut with the Hornets after transferring from Middle Tennessee State to join his brother Jace. Dunniway appeared in eight games with the Hornets in 2019 and made one start.

Sacramento State managed just 17 points despite advantages in total offense (400 yards to 209), total plays (76 to 55) and time of possession (37:56 to 22:04). The victory was the Hornets’ first in Taylor’s 14 games at the helm in which they failed to score 20 points. They averaged 43.5 points in their nine victories in 2019. Sacramento State opted not to participate in the Big Sky Conference’s makeshift 2021 spring season.

Martin did not know how he would fit at Sacramento State when he arrived in 2018 from St. Patrick-St. Vincent High School in Vallejo. He was a running back with the Bruins and capped his junior season with a 72-yard touchdown run in the 2016 state Division 6-A championship game as St. Patrick-St. Vincent defeated Strathmore 29-28. He also contributed to the Bruins claiming the 2017 state Division IV title in basketball.

His senior year was more of the same. Martin ran wild in the North Coast Section playoffs, gaining a combined 446 yards with eight touchdowns in wins over Stellar Prep and Clear Lake. St. Patrick-St. Vincent reached the Northern California championship game, but that was the end of the road as Strathmore settled a score by the score of 49-35.

Sacramento State was squared away at running back in 2018 with Elijah Dotson, who ran for 1,154 yards and nine touchdowns as a sophomore. The Hornets finished 0-7 in the Big Sky and 2-8 overall, leading to the firing of head coach Jody Sears. Changes began with the hiring of Taylor and one of those was Martin finding a new address at tight end.

Martin accepted the switch for no other reason than a freshman knows better than to question a coach, especially one with Taylor’s credentials. Taylor compiled a 58-3 as co-head coach at Folsom High from 2012 to ’15. The former Cal quarterback then spent one year as offensive coordinator at Eastern Washington and two seasons in the same job at Utah. He took a $285,000 pay cut by leaving Utah and signing a seven-year contract at Sacramento State.

As far as Martin is concerned, Taylor is worth every dollar of his $240,000 annual salary. Martin put his faith in Taylor because “he knows what he’s doing. It was their decision to move me (to tight end). I feel like I’m an athlete and I can play anywhere. It’s not always going to be about you. This is a team sport. You have to work for your teammates.”

Taylor’s impact with the Hornets was immediate. Sacramento State finished 9-4 in 2019 and claimed a share of the Big Sky championship. Martin had a hand (or two) in the Hornets’ success with 39 receptions for 550 yards and seven touchdowns. He set a school record for most touchdown catches in a season by a tight end.

Once Taylor took the reins at Sacramento State, he did not need much time to figure out Martin was special. “He just loves playing football,” said Taylor, who won the Eddie Robinson Award in 2019 as the FCS Coach of the Year. “He could be a great defensive player honestly. He could have been a great running back. He can do a lot of different things. He’s one of the fastest players on the team. He’s definitely in the top three, which is unusual for a tight end.”

The gushing continued when Taylor went on to say, “When he catches the ball, we joke around as a (coaching) staff that he legitimately thinks he’s going to score every time he gets the ball. That’s how he runs. He’s strong and athletic. He doesn’t run like he’s going to go down. That’s why he breaks so many tackles. I just happen to think he might be the best tight end in the country. He’s that good.”

Aggies can cash in with victory

Playing at Tulsa on Thursday was far less lucrative and perilous for UC Davis than going to USC on Saturday. The Aggies reaped the financial benefits of losing to three Pac-12 teams in the past five seasons. After scoring first in each of those three games, UC Davis remembered it had no business occupying the same field as Oregon (2016), Stanford (2018) and Cal (2019)

UC Davis was in store for another payday as easy prey for USC, but fans of the Trojans could not believe their beloved team would stoop so low by opening the 2021 season against an FCS program. USC is one of just three FBS teams to have never paid an FBC squad to roll over and play dead. The other two are UCLA and Notre Dame. The Trojans eventually caved in and backed out of the game.

Colton Lamson

The cost for doing so was $725,000. The Aggies not only bolstered their coffers, but they also avoided losing players to injury in a no-win situation. It would be suffice to say Tulsa will never be mistaken for USC.

Storylines abound this season for UC Davis. The Aggies are striving to regain their footing after a 5-7 finish in 2019. UC Davis raised the bar in 2018 by sharing the Big Sky Conference championship for the first time and making its inaugural appearance in the FCS playoffs. The Aggies beat Northern Iowa 23-16 in their postseason debut at home and then lost 34-29 to Big Sky rival Eastern Washington in Cheney to finish 10-3.

Falling to Eastern Washington is nothing new for the Aggies, who are 0-9 against the Eagles. A victory over Eastern Washington last April 3 would have sent UC Davis to the playoffs for the second time. UC Davis went 3-2 in the makeshift spring season and missing the playoffs was just fine with Aggies coach Dan Hawkins. UC Davis would have had to practice for two weeks after losing 32-22 to Eastern Washington before the playoff bracket was announced.

Hawkins never wanted five games in the spring, so playing into May was not at all appealing. He said as much at his press conference earlier this week. “We wanted to get our guys back in a normal cycle of lifting and running,” Hawkins said. “We have not had the usual training camp. We weren’t trying to grind our guys every single day. We were trying to pace them and play the long game.”

Colton Lamson started at right tackle against Tulsa. He lost the job to Nick Amoah after nine games in 2019 and did not start in the first two games last spring. Lamson supplanted Kooper Richardson in the Aggies’ 73-24 rout of Cal Poly. Richardson is playing at Sacramento State as a graduate transfer. He was joined by his brother Kaden, a freshman, in transferring from UC Davis to Sacramento State. The two have reunited with their father, Kris, who is the Hornets’ assistant head coach and offensive line guru.

His demotion in 2019 left Lamson at a crossroads. He made the right turn because “I don’t want to be a negative guy. I wasn’t going to pout about it. It drove me. It made me a better player. I think (the coaches) saw how hard I was working in camp. I really prepared myself. I’m supremely confident because I put in the work.”

Cole Hansen

As Lamson has worked to rebuild his confidence, linebacker Cole Hansen is trying to repair his reputation. Hansen was ejected in the fourth quarter of the April 3 loss to Eastern Washington after being called for targeting. Hansen lowered his helmet to drop running back Dennis Merritt for a 1-yard loss on third-and-3 at the Aggies’ 27-yard line. The penalty extended what turned into a 69-yard drive for the Eagles that ended with a field goal and a 10-point lead with 5:34 to play.

Hansen apparently did not learn his lesson after being warned about targeting two weeks earlier against Cal Poly. The Big Sky Conference notified Hansen that he should have been ejected against the Mustangs. That would have been an easy pill to swallow in the Aggies’ 49-point victory. His infraction against Eastern Washington came six plays after UC Davis, which trailed 16-0 at halftime, scored a touchdown with 11:11 remaining to trail 29-22.

That his left hand was in a cast might explain why Hansen resorting to lowering his helmet. He broke his thumb a week before the March 6 opener at Idaho State and feared he would be out of action. He finished the spring as the Aggies’ second-leading tackler with 34, including a team-high 7.5 for loss. It would have been 35 if his third-down stop against Eastern Washington had not been nullified.

“I could understand that call from the referee’s point of view if it’s more of an open-field situation with a defenseless receiver,” Hansen said. “You don’t see that too often in college football when you’re in between the tackles and it’s short yardage and you’re trying to make a play. I thought it was clean.”

With his left thumb healed and the cast removed, Hansen is targeting a clean slate this season.

Minor finds coaching is calling

Damon Minor is in his seventh season as the hitting coach for the River Cats.

Damon Minor did not make it to the bitter end of the Sacramento River Cats’ fifth consecutive loss. The hitting coach was ejected in the fifth inning Thursday, long before the Tacoma Rainiers scored three runs in the 12th for a 10-7 victory.

Frustration might have gotten the best of the 47-year-old Minor. At the time of Minor’s early departure, Tacoma starting pitcher Ryan Weber had retired the first 13 Sacramento batters to face him. Minor lost his temper after Jaylin Davis struck out on a foul tip to open the fifth inning. Heliot Ramos poked a single as Minor was making his way to the clubhouse to end Weber’s perfect start.

Damon Minor offers advice to Mauricio Dubon, who is hitting .338 in 38 games at Sacramento.

At least Minor was spared from being in the dugout when the game ended shortly after 11 p.m. With Jazon Krizen starting the bottom of the 12th at second base, Chadwick Tromp struck out and Steve Duggar lined into a double play to send home what was left of a paltry crowd of 3,799. The loss dropped the River Cats to 38-52 and solidified their hold on last place in the West Division of Triple-A West, 15 games behind the Reno Aces and 13.5 behind the Rainiers.

Triple-A teams were reconfigured this year into two divisions. There are 20 teams in the East and 10 in the West, which has five-team East and West divisions. The switch spelled the end of the Pacific Coast League, which began in 1903. The River Cats will forever have the distinction of being the last PCL champions in 2019.

First-year Tacoma manager Kris Negron is all too familiar with Triple-A. Of the Vanden High graduate’s 1,439 games in the minor leagues, 891 were at Triple-A. He played 170 games in the majors – 96 with the Cincinnati Reds, 30 with the Dodgers, 28 with the Seattle Mariners (Tacoma’s parent club) and 16 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The 35-year-old Negron retired after finishing the 2019 regular season with the Dodgers. He did not make the postseason roster.

With Thursday’s victory, the Rainiers avoided their first four-game losing streak of the season. Losing streaks have hounded the River Cats all season. Their current five-game skid is their third of at least five games in 2021. They are striking out far too often, leading Triple-A West with 881, and walking far too many.

The River Cats issued eight free passes Thursday and lead all of Triple-A with 443 in 90 games. Their parent club, the San Francisco Giants, has issued the fewest walks in the majors with 317 in 121 games. There is nothing Minor can do about Sacramento’s lack of pitching control. He has more than enough on his mind these days with all the strikeouts.

With 12 strikeouts Thursday, the River Cats reached double digits for the seventh time in their past 10 games. They also had 12 on Monday when they came with four outs of being no-hit by the Salt Lake Bees. Mauricio Dubon singled with two outs in the eighth inning to salvage a modicum of pride for the River Cats.

Minor has his work cut out for him, but he will not be chasing players around the clubhouse with words of advice or invitations to the batting cage. Even with all the strikeouts, the former Giant can look on the bright side in that Sacramento’s .280 team batting average ranks fourth in all of Triple-A. The River Cats are third in runs scored with 565 and sixth in home runs with 139.

“The real valuable thing I learned over my career is what can translate here,” Minor explained. “Guys going up and down, being ready, those failures and successes, coming off the bench, learning how to play the game when you’re not playing every day. Those challenges I had back then (as a player) have helped me relate to the players now.

“As a hitting coach, you’re helping with more with the psychology of it. Some guys need you to come to them. With some guys, you need to want for them to come to you. You have to feel the player out and just be ready for when they need you. You’ve just go to talk to them and relate to them and realize they’re human.”

His own career did not turn out as Minor had hoped. He spent parts of four seasons with the Giants, hitting .232 with 13 home runs in 136 games. Not only he did struggle at the plate, but he was limited in the field after being a designated hitter in four years at the University of Oklahoma. He was a big reason why the Sooners won the national championship in 1994 by batting .298 with 14 home runs and 53 RBI.

Minor laughed when asked what advice he would have for a player such as himself. “I would tell him to get out of your head,” Minor said. “I would say you have to understand it’s a process. You can get frustrated. If you get in your way, then you’re battling yourself and the pitcher. It’s going to be a hard day if you do that.”

Race walking into romance

Robyn Stevens fell for Nick Christie even though he is nine years younger.

Nick Christie was ready to leave the friend zone with Robyn Stevens in 2019 when he invited the 2001 Vacaville High School graduate to the California Super Bloom. There was one slight problem, however. Stevens was more attracted to the endless fields of wildflowers than to a man nine years her junior.

Stevens was content with their connection being race walking. The two became acquainted by occasionally training together, and Christie’s Super Bloom invitation came after they crossed paths at the USA Track & Field 20-kilometer Race Walk Championships in Southern California.

Age is no longer an issue for Stevens because she and Christie are now an inseparable couple. They will leave for Tokyo on July 28 as the only American race walkers to qualify for the Olympics.  It took more than their respective victories June 26 at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Oregon to make it.

Their tickets to Japan were determined by the world rankings with each needing to be in the top 60 to qualify. Stevens was ranked 54th entering the U.S. Olympic Trials, so there was little chance that she would miss out regardless of how she finished. Christie was ranked 61st, so he was hanging on by a thread.

Stevens, a 2001 Vacaville High graduate, made it to the Olympics by being ranked 54th in the world. The top 60 qualified.

Christie did the math and figured he would need to finish with a time south of 1 hour and 25 minutes to climb into the top 60. He crossed the finish line in 1:30:48 with Stevens on his heels as she began her final 1-kilometer lap. A photo of Stevens hitting the banner at the finish line shows the shock on her face because she felt as if she had stolen Christie’s thrill of victory.

“I slapped his butt and someone told me, ‘How sweet of you to push Nick through the finish,’” Stevens said. “That was his finish line. I was thinking about him and trying not to cry. I knew he had to go under 1:25. He was smiling, but I could see in his eyes that he wasn’t confident. I knew my parents couldn’t go (to Tokyo) and if Nick didn’t make it, I would have had to go alone.”

Fortunately, a race walker in the men’s top 60 was withdrawn by his country. Christie received the good news after the rankings were updated July 5, which was the last day for countries to submit their team rosters for Tokyo. Although the withdrawal was expected, Christie came within a few short hours of being left out.

All their trials and triumphs as race walkers will make for great stories that Stevens and Christie will share one day with their children. Starting a family is on their agenda along with returning to the Olympics in 2024. Competing in Paris would be special because they are both sponsored by a French sporting goods company, Decathlon. Christie was a guest at the opening of Decathlon’s Emeryville store in 2019. They have even discussed what it will take to qualify for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. Stevens thinks of all those possibilities and remembers how close she came to letting Christie get away.

“I enjoyed his company, but I wasn’t thinking romantically because of his age. I always went for older guys,” said Stevens, who was 36 at the time. “I told him I thought the Super Bloom would be cool to see and that it would be cool to have someone to see it with. I just thought he wanted to hang out.”

Christie saw much more than flowers when he was  invited by Stevens to Las Vegas because a friend of hers was performing in what she called a burlesque show. When her topless friend took the stage, Stevens could not imagine what Christie had to be thinking. The blush in his cheeks was her first clue.

“I was thinking a cabaret or something like that, maybe just a little risqué,” recalled Christie, who  had to hustle after the last-minute  invitation to make the five-hour drive from San Diego in time for the show. “That was a little surprising. I didn’t think it was going to be like that. I didn’t know what I agreed to.”

Stevens did not give much thought to how Christie would react to nudity because “this is Vegas. It wasn’t dirty at all. I really didn’t think about this being out of his comfort zone. He’s pretty chill, but when she came out he was all pink in the face. He was great. He went with the flow.”

The best was yet to come. Stevens also invited Christie to go to a goat yoga class the following day. The class was in an outdoor pen and the students went through the various yoga moves as baby goats climbed all over them. And the instructor just happened to be Stevens’ exposed friend, the dancer.

“By the end of the weekend, I knew I was interested in him.” Stevens admitted. “Who doesn’t bond over goats … cute baby goats? I was actually wondering if he was thinking, ‘I don’t know about this Robyn.’”

He certainly knows enough by now. 

Three seniors deserve final bow


The curtain will fall on the 2021 baseball season for Vacaville and Will C. Wood high schools on Thursday when the Wildcats travel across town to face the Bulldogs at 4 p.m. Before the lights are turned out, these three seniors deserve to take a bow before they exit stage left.

Kobe Rolling (from left), Juan Martinez and Daniel Navarro

Daniel Navarro and Kobe Rolling, Will C. Wood

Navarro and Rolling came to the rescue of Fairfield pitcher Juan Martinez on March 30 after Martinez was calling for balking on consecutive pitches. Martinez had no idea what was wrong because he speaks Spanish and could not understand the umpire. Fairfield coach Nick Spini did not fare any better when he went to the mound after the first balk with another Spanish-speaking player, whom Spini said could not translate a balk because he never heard of it.

The second balk call prompted Navarro and Rolling to go to the mound. Navarro’s father was raised in Mexico and only speaks Spanish. Rolling was enrolled in the Dual Immersion program as a youngster, so he learned Spanish before English. Martinez’s plight was all too familiar for Navarro, who did not speak English when he arrived at Wood in the fall of 2017.

“I felt his pain,” said Navarro, who credits teachers such as Katie Stonebraker at Wood for investing the time and diligence to help him become bilingual.

Martinez did not know what to think as two members of the opposing team made their way to the mound. “He was shocked,” Navarro said. Rolling added, “He had his guard up. I think he was a little scared. It has to be frightening when you don’t understand English.”

That the Wildcats had a 14-0 lead at the time had nothing to do with Rolling’s decision to go to the mound and take along Navarro. “I still would have gone out there if (the score) was opposite,” Rolling said. “It was the right thing to do at the right moment.”

Navarro and Rolling will be honored Thursday evening by the Governing Board of the Vacaville Unified School District during its meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m.

Austin Menesini, Vacaville

Four juniors made the 24-player varsity roster for the Bulldogs in 2020. Menesini was not one of them. The catcher was sent down to the junior varsity to play with his brother JJ, a sophomore. When COVID-19 wiped out the season, Menesini had plenty of time to stew after having assumed he would make the varsity.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is vvwcw63-copy-969x1024.jpg
Austin Menesini

“I was in shock to be honest with you. I have high expectations for myself,” Menesini said. “I called my parents to tell them what happened and they told me I could stick it out or quit. I’m not a quitter. I knew what I had to do to get better. With all that was going on, I had to overcome it. I was motivated to prove people wrong.”

Among those people would be a few varsity players who teased Menesini for being demoted to the junior varsity, “They did make fun of me a lot,” he said. “They were chirping at me.”

Coach Stu Clary said it was not if Menesini did anything wrong during tryouts. Menesini was simply the odd man out with three senior catchers on the varsity. “It wouldn’t have been good to have him sit there and watch those three play,” Clary said. “And it wasn’t like we could just put him in left field. Our positions were stacked last year.”

Menesini’s perseverance has paid off this spring. He is the starting catcher for the Bulldogs and is batting .400 as the leadoff hitter. He had two hits, including a triple to drive in his brother, in Vacaville’s 16-2 victory over Wood on Tuesday. It might have taken Menesini three years to make his varsity, but he is certainly making the most of it.

“When there’s a bump in the road, you don’t give up. You go around it,” Menesini said. “I had to find my way around it.”

First play often goes astray

Hunter Rodrigues has figured out how to conquer his nerves as the starting quarterback for UC Davis. All the junior has to do to calm down is botch the first offensive play. He did that twice in three March victories for the Aggies, so getting his worst play out of the way right away was not catastrophic. 

Confusion on the first play March 6 at Idaho led to Rodrigues mishandling the snap and having to scramble to recover the loose ball. “We got (to the line of scrimmage) a little late and the play clock was going down,” Rodrigues said. “It was down to about 5 seconds and we were all trying to rush. Not a good start.”

Hunter Rodrigues was nearly sacked for a safety and then fumbled on the first play against Cal Poly on March 26. UC Davis went on to win 73-24.

Rodrigues bounced back to complete 23 of 29 passes for 236 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-17 victory. UC Davis knocked off the No. 19 team in the FCS rankings and then joined the Top 25 at No. 23.

The first play against Cal Poly on March 26 was worse. A holding penalty on the opening kickoff left UC Davis starting its first possession at the 9-yard line. Rodrigues dropped back to pass and was immediately under pressure. He retreated into the end zone and then scrambled to his left with Cal Poly’s Lance Vecchio in pursuit. Vecchio caught Rodrigues, who lost the ball on his way to the turf.

Rodrigues lost the ball because he was trying to flip it forward in hopes of the play being ruled an incomplete pass. “No (receiver) was open, so I was rolling out trying to find someone,” Rodrigues said. “I noticed I was in the end zone and I didn’t want to take a safety. I should have thrown it away sooner.

“Yeah, another not a good start.”

The Mustangs recovered the fumble, but the Aggies defense bailed out Rodrigues by limiting Cal Poly to a field goal. The turnover by Rodriguez was long forgotten by halftime, when UC Davis led 49-10 on its way to a 73-24 victory. UC Davis was to play Cal Poly again on April 10, but Cal Poly  has bowed out.

That leaves UC Davis (3-1) with one more game this spring. The Aggies, who are No. 11 in the FCS rankings, will host No. 9 Eastern Washington (3-1) on Saturday with the winner likely receiving an at-large berth to the 16-team FCS playoffs. Eleven conference champions will receive automatic berths, leaving just five at-large bids.

Weber State (3-0), which is ranked No 3, will likely receive the Big Sky’s automatic bid when the FCS playoff field is announced April 18. The Wildcats’ remaining games are against two 1-3 teams in Southern Utah and Idaho State. Weber State beat UC Davis 18-13 on March 13 and will not play Eastern Washington.

Rodrigues welcomes the challenge of facing Eastern Washington with the opportunity to lead the Aggies to their first win against the Eagles in nine meetings. The Whitney High School (Rocklin) graduate arrived at UC Davis from American River College in 2018, when the Aggies lost 59-20 to the Eagles in the regular season and 34-29 in the FCS quarterfinals. 

UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier was the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year in 2018, but he was not at his best against Eastern Washington. He threw two interceptions in each loss. To put that in perspective, he was picked off just six times in the other 11 games. When asked about Maier’s performances against the Eagles, Rodrigues looked beyond the errant passes to see what made Maier so successful.

“It was the true grit that you have to have to play this position,” Rodrigues said. “You have to put your heart and should into this position in order to be successful. It meant everything to (Maier). It means everything to me to play at my best when the best is needed.”

Rodrigues will have to be at his best against Eastern Washington – except for the first play. That is the one he can afford to botch because “it takes away any nerves or butterflies you might have.” 

He would know.Edit

Phat times at Oak Ridge High

Eric Cavaliere has never had it so good as Oak Ridge High School’s football coach. He enters his 14th season at the helm of the Trojans after claiming his first Sac-Joaquin Section championship in 2019. One of his prize pupils, Ian Book, is the starting quarterback at Notre Dame. And his current quarterback, Justin Lamson, was voted the All-Metro Player of the Year by the Sacramento Bee as just a junior.

Life is going so well for Cavaliere that the 1987 Vacaville High School graduate can afford to take it easy occasionally. He did that one recent morning, relaxing in the football bleachers at Oak Ridge with flip flops on his feet and a few weeks of growth on his face, to watch a handful of quarterbacks toss passes to receivers.

Justin Lamson (right) is following in the footsteps of Ian Book (left) at Oak Ridge.

In that group was Book, who is working out in his old stomping grounds after the coronavirus led Notre Dame to cancel classes on campus and spring football practice. He was joined by Lamson, who is having a difficult time with social distancing because he wants to hear any wisdom Book is willing to share. Book has no problem with any player, even an eighth-grader, wanting to work and pick his brain.

“I know what it would have meant to me when I was their age,” said Book, who is returning for a fifth year at Notre Dame after throwing for 3,034 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2019 as the Fighting Irish finished 11-2 by winning their last six games in a season for the first time since 1992.

Cavaliere and Book went out for lunch after that workout. Their conversation ranged from the Book family dog Duke to Book offering his thoughts on Lamson and Oak Ridge’s prospects for the 2020 season. Book frequently checked his phone for updates on Duke, which was bitten by a rattlesnake on a walk with Book’s father Rich. Book breathed a sigh of relief after learning just one or the snake’s fangs sank into Duke’s nose. 

Comforted by the good news, Book shifted gears to football by asking Cavaliere about one Oak Ridge player after another. Book has followed the Trojans from afar and knows who’s who on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Cavaliere never ceases to be amazed by Book’s vested interest in Trojans football.

Eric Cavaliere

“Here is the quarterback at Notre Dame going into his final season and Ian knows the names of the guys on our team,” Cavaliere said. “He’s got plenty of things to think about, but he takes a lot of pride in our school. He’ll always be an Oak Ridge Trojan. He wants us to do well. He wants our team to kick butt.”

Cavaliere takes great pride in having played football at Vacaville High and hopes his players will be just as proud once their time at Oak Ridge comes to an end. “I want them to leave with that same kind of feeling regardless of our record or anything else. That’s always been of my goals,” he said. “This is a community school. We’re not a renegade school. We don’t have transfers coming here from all over the state, You have to live here to come here.”

Book has fond memories of being a three-year starter at quarterback for Cavaliere at Oak Ridge. The 22-year-old was weighing scholarship offers from Boise State and Washington State in 2015 when Boise State offensive coordinator Mike Sanford left to take the same position at Notre Dame. Book went from nearly committing to Boise State because of Sanford to pledging he would play at Washington State.

Sanford apparently thought enough of Book in recruiting him to Boise State that he invited Book to visit South Bend shortly after he joined the Notre Dame staff. Book was returning from a cruise with his parents at the time, so they went with him from Miami to Notre Dame and a meeting with Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly. Book had little reason to think as a three-star recruit that Kelly would offer him a scholarship.

“I sure hoped for one,” Book recalled. “It was a good visit. I felt at home.”

Without spring practice at Notre Dame, Ian Book returned to Oak Ridge to train.

Finding a home has not been as easy for Sanford, who left Notre Dame after just two seasons to become the head coach at Western Kentucky. He was fired by the Hilltoppers after two years and was Utah State’s offensive coordinator in 2019. Sanford then packed his bags again for the same job at Minnesota.

Brandon Wimbush has also been on the move, transferring from Notre Dame to Central Florida in 2019 after being supplanted by Book despite a 3-0 start in the 2018 season. The Fighting Irish went 11-0 in the regular season and earned a berth in the College Football Playoff. Book was no match for Clemson freshman Trevor Lawrence in the Cotton Bowl. Lawrence threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns as the Tigers rolled to a 30-3 rout. Book passed for 160 yards and was sacked six times.

Notre Dame is 19-4 with Book as the starter, and he deserves to be credited with a 20th victory after bailing out Wimbush in the 2018 Citrus Bowl by lifting Notre Dame to a 21-17 win over LSU. Book was 14-of-19 for 164 yards and two touchdowns as Notre Dame won its first New Year’s Day bowl since 1994.

Book has come a long way since that difficult day in 2015 when he called Graham Harrell, who had recruited Book for Washington State, and left a message. Harrell replied with a text as Book was in a movie theater with a few friends. Book left the theater to call Harrell and renege on his verbal commitment. 

To this day, Book does not remember the title of the movie or if he returned to the theater and rejoined his friends after making the call. “I was so rattled,” Book said.

Sanford and Book have gone their separate ways since Sanford asked Book to visit Notre Dame, but Book will never forget how he got to where he is today and the people such as Cavaliere and Sanford who paved the path for him.

“(Sanford) give me my shot. The relationship between us is still there. I will always appreciate him for the opportunity I got,” Book said. “I’ll talk a walk and think about how fortunate I’ve been. I do it a lot. I’ll go by the stadium at night after studying and think about how lucky I am.”