No place like Davis for Castles

Sleeping on an air mattress in the basement of his uncle’s house was not all that bad. Having to leave his football gear in the garage after getting home from practice at South Tahoe High School was no big deal. His mother believed the smell would keep bears away from the garbage cans outside the family’s home.

Sharing a house with four of his UC Davis teammates has its benefits. There are three full size refrigerators and the garage was turned into a weight room when the five sophomores were stuck at home during the COVID-19 quarantine. Each of the five has a car, so they often squabble for dibs on the driveway.

His comfort level with the Aggies and garage workouts have contributed to McCallan Castles becoming one of the top tight ends in the country. HeroSports.com ranked Castles as the No. 1 returning tight end among FCS teams. The 6-foot-5, 233-pound Castles and Idaho’s Hayden Hatten are the only FCS tight ends to have three touchdown receptions after the first two weeks of the season.

Hunter Rodrigues threw two of his career-high four touchdown passes to Castles last Saturday as UC Davis cruised to a 53-7 win at the University of San Diego. The Aggies avoided a letdown after coming away with a 19-17 victory at Tulsa on Sept. 2. Tulsa is one of eight FBS teams to lose to an FCS opponent so far this season.

McCallan Castles

UC Davis is one of three Big Sky Conference squads to upset an FBS team in 2021. The others are Eastern Washington (35-33 in double overtime against UNLV) and Montana (13-7 against then-No. 20 Washington). The Grizzlies’ victory over the Huskies was the first by an FCS team against a ranked FBS program since 2016.

Castles played in an FBS vs. FCS game in 2019. He happened to be attending Cal at the time and earned the starting job at tight end as a redshirt freshman. Castles committed to the Golden Bears as a junior at South Tahoe after catching 65 passes for 1,193 yards and 15 touchdowns in the 2016 season. Cal was by no means the only school pursuing the three-star recruit. He also received scholarship offers from Arizona State, Colorado, Duke, Oregon State, Utah and Washington State.

Wanting to play as close as possible to home led Castles to making his verbal commitment to Cal without giving his other suitors the time of day. Adjusting to Berkeley after being raised in South Lake Tahoe, moving to Bethroud, Colo., and then returning to South Lake Tahoe was 100,000 volts of culture shock. Castles had never lived in a city with more than 22,000 residents. More than 42,000 students attend Cal and account for one third of Berkeley’s population.

To say Castles was overwhelmed would be putting it mildly. He would have been better off in the basement of his uncle’s house in South Lake Tahoe. Castles lived with his uncle so he could start the school year at South Tahoe High in 2016 as his parents were clearing out the family’s home in Bethroud.

His decision to leave Cal came after Castles started in the 2019 season opener … against UC Davis. He played the next week against Washington before going to Golden Bears head coach Justin Wilcox to turn in his playbook. Castles would need more than fingers and toes to count how many people he feared he would disappoint by quitting. That paled in comparison, however, to how he would have felt by staying at Cal where he did not belong.

“When you take that (recruiting) visit, you’re usually only around the campus. I didn’t really experience all of Berkeley,” Castles recalled. “I’ve never been a city person. I was calling my mom and dad every week and I’d tell them, ‘I don’t know if I can make it here.’ It was like I was letting the environment affect how much I liked football. I was questioning if I even wanted to play anymore.”

A warm welcome from the Aggies rekindled Castles’ passion, which had been called into question when UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins spoke to Wilcox about Castles’ resolution. “Wilcox said he didn’t know if I loved it anymore,'” Castles said. “When I got to Davis, I knew I had to prove to myself and everybody else that I wanted to be here. For (Hawkins) to let me come in and give me an opportunity to play, it’s been great. This is more my speed.”

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 open by closing out win

Four minutes stood between UC Davis and an improbable victory at Tulsa last Thursday. The Golden Hurricanes had three timeouts , but stopping the Aggies and forcing a punt would have been far better than resorting to calling timeouts to stop the clock. All Tulsa needed was enough time to kick a field goal to avoid losing at home to an FCS team after being a 22-point favorite.

UC Davis had just dodged a bullet when Chris Venable slammed into Tulsa wide receiver Kenyon Stokes at the Aggies’ 8-yard line and forced a fumble. The ball bounced through the end zone because Erron Duncan arrived in time to prevent any Tulsa player from recovering it for the go-ahead touchdown.

“The fumble caused by Venable was amazing. The next thing that was amazing was to watch Erron Duncan go 100 mph to get to the ball,” UC Davis coach Dan Hawkins said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “As soon as it was a fumble, the first thing that came into my mind was we’ve got to get on that. If they get the ball, we go home with a nice try instead of a nice win.”

Sealing a 19-17 victory would require the Aggies to make two first downs and force the Golden Hurricanes to spend their timeouts. Wide receiver Kris Vaughn added to the degree of difficulty by being called for a fast start on first down to put the Aggies at the 15-yard line with 15 yards to go to maintain possession.

A 6-yard run by Ulonzo Gilliam was made possible by 6-foot-5, 233-pound tight end McCallan Castles aligning right and pulling left to pave the way for the running back through the hole. Castles followed by catching a pass from quarterback Hunter Rodrigues for a 12-yard gain and a first down at the 33.

Tulsa stopped Gilliam for no gain on the next play. It was his sixth carry in which the junior did not gain an inch. Thirteen of his 25 carries went for 3 or fewer yards. Hawkins credited his son Cody, the Aggies offensive coordinator, for sticking with the running game even though Gilliam was not having much luck.

“(The Golden Hurricanes are) pretty stout up front,” Hawkins said. “The tendency is when you play a team with a dominant defensive front that you give up on the running game and then everything else collapses. We kept chipping away.”

UC Davis finished with 88 yards rushing, its lowest total since managing just 63 against Sacramento State in the 2019 Causeway Classic.

Gilliam has been a workhorse for the Aggies since arriving from Merced High in 2017. He paid his dues for a year as a redshirt and then became a starter in 2018. In the opener at San Jose State, Gilliam ran for 143 yards and scored three touchdowns in a 44-38 victory. The Aggies also beat the Spartans in 2010 for their first win against an FBS team since climbing to Division I in 2007.

His hands have also been put to good use. Gilliam’s 124 receptions are the most by a running back in school history. His 124th came at the perfect time last Thursday with UC Davis facing a third-and-4 at its 49-yard line after Tulsa called its third timeout with 1:56 to play. Rodrigues faked a handoff to Vaughn on what appeared to be a jet sweep to the left as Gilliam slipped out of the backfield to the right for an 8-yard reception to seal the deal.

“He’s a real special player. He’s unbelievably tough,” Hawkins said of Gilliam. “He’s someone our offense leans on.”

The University of San Diego knows that all too well. In 2019, Gilliam ran for 139 yards and two touchdowns as the Aggies pulled out a 38-35 victory over the Toreros. His 1-yard scoring run with 3:35 to play was the difference. San Diego was one yard away from winning when Devon King forced a fumble that Isaiah Thomas recovered to bail out UC Davis.

Hawkins can only hope his players will not take San Diego lightly or suffer a letdown after knocking off Tulsa. “We’re not going to overestimate Tulsa or underestimate anybody else. That’s just not how we roll,” Hawkins said. “You may outscore (San Diego), but they will not beat themselves. They’re a tough out. It helps you as a coach because you’d better be on it because you know they’re going to be on it.”

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.

Managing twins and baseball

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Vanen High graduate Kris Negron is in his first year as the Rainiers manager.

Wednesday is hump day and time to travel for Triple-A West teams such as the Sacramento River Cats. For Tacoma Rainiers manager Kris Negron, those 24 hours often provide enough time for the Vanden High School graduate to take a detour and go home to Napa before rejoining the team at its next destination.

When the Rainers head home Wednesday after six games in Sacramento, however, Negron will be on the flight with his players. The drive to Napa is a little more than an hour from Sacramento, so the 35-year-old Negron raced home Monday after the Rainiers scored twice in the ninth inning to beat the River Cats 6-4.

The game ended at 10:39 p.m., so it had to be well past midnight by the time Negron showered and hit the road. Negron joked before Friday’s game that he went home after the Rainiers’ 10-7 win Thursday and did not get to Napa until 2 a.m.

That was just in time for Negron to assist his wife Allison in feeding their sons, Johnny and Lorenzo. The twins were born in June and spent two weeks in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit. Negron was anxious to return to the Rainers once his sons could go home, but the Rainiers’ parent club – the Seattle Mariners – told him to take a third week off to help Allison adjust to being a mother.

“I couldn’t think of leaving (Johnny and Lorenzo) while they were in the hospital. That was something I was dead set on,” Negron recalled. “The Mariners organization is amazing. They’re really big on family. They were open with me and told me to let them know if I needed more time.”

Tony Arenich, the Mariners’ Minor League Field Coordinator, filled in for Negron. The Mariners acquired Negron from the Arizona Diamondbacks for cash in August 2018. He appeared in 18 games with Seattle, hitting .207 with one home run and three RBI. Negron began the 2019 season with Tacoma and played in 82 games, hitting .310 and 12 homers and 61 RBI. His batting average was the highest at the end of a minor-league season in his career.

The Los Angeles Dodgers traded for Negron on July 29, 2019 because they were in need of a versatile fielder with Kiki Hernandez (sprained left hand) and Chris Taylor (fractured left forearm) on the injured list. Negron announced his presence with authority in Los Angeles by homering in each of his first two games.

Negron went from playing for a last-place team in the Northern Division of the Pacific Coast League to being doused with champagne after the Dodgers clinched their seventh consecutive National League West title Sept. 10. The Dodgers finished the regular season with a franchise-record 106 victories by winning their last seven games, including a 9-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants in the finale Sept. 29. Negron will never forget that game for one reason.

It was his last. Negron entered the game in the sixth inning, got an infield single in the seventh and then was replaced by Austin Barnes. That he managed to end his 14-year professional career with a hit was the perfect parting gift.

“We’re in San Francisco. My very last at-bat. It was just an infield single, but I had a feeling,” Negron said. “I was standing on first base. I could see all my friends and family in the stands. I just kind of knew right then and there. I could end my career on a single, so I thought that would be the way I ride off into the sunset.”

Retirement crossed Negron’s mind whenever he and Allison discussed starting a family. They have been together since meeting in 2005 at UC Davis. That would be Negron’s only year in Davis. He lost his baseball scholarship when he struck out with poor grades. Allison suggested he attend Cosumnes River College.

“We met only a couple of weeks before I had to leave Davis, so the timing wasn’t the greatest,” Negron said. “I tried to come up to Davis to see her as much as I could. With summer school and summer ball going on, she was by my side the entire time. She straightened me out. She was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Negron was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in 2006 and married Allison in 2010. He made his major-league debut with the Cincinnati Reds on June 6, 2012. He played in four games with the Reds before being sent to Triple-A Louisville. His season ended July 5 when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee.

His best season in the majors was 2014 when he played in 49 games with the Reds. He hit .271 with six homers and 17 RBI. Adversity struck again in 2015 when Negron tore the labrum in his left shoulder and fractured his scapula. There were plenty of times when he wondered whether he would make it back to the majors. a

“It was the vulnerability,” Negron said. “A lot of times you think you’re invincible, especially when you’re younger. The game can taken away from you at any second. You have to play like there’s no tomorrow.”

More tomorrows are in store for Negron now that he has traded his glove for a lineup card. He impressed Andy McKay, the Mariners’ director of player development, last year by running the team’s alternate training site at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma.

“Andy McKay took me under his wing. I knew I could learn a lot. I had a blast at the alternate site,” Negron said. “About halfway through, he asked me I was interested in managing at Triple-A. It was intriguing, so I decided to go for it.”

Negron has no idea where he would be today without Allison.

“It definitely takes a special woman to deal with the lifestyle we go through. Baseball is tough, but it’s even harder on our significant others,” he said. “(Allison) means the world to me. Twin boys are no joke, but my wife is absolutely crushing it. I call her super mom. Without someone as strong as her, it would be impossible.”

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.

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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.”

Fast four-ward for relay team

Aspin Oliver (from left), Lily Holman, Makayla Oliver and Maya Holman started off Saturday by training for the Monticello Empire League championships Tuesday and Thursday at Vanden. The three seniors and one sophomore (Lily) are ranked second in the state in the 4×100 relay and Aspin is first in the 300-meter hurdles.

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