NCAA Tournament to be a kick

Andy Velasquez (14) is mobbed by his teammates after scoring in the 55th minute Nov. 15 as UC Davis defeated UC Santa Barbara 2-0 in the championship game of the Big West Conference tournament in Davis. With the title, the Aggies advance to the NCAA Tournament and will host Louisville at 1 p.m. Sunday.

Bulldogs on the run with Monk

Daniel Hernandez (left) and Kelln Steplight set the pace in a training run last Monday at Folsom High, where the Bulldogs placed second in the section meet.

David Monk remained true to his school in 2006 when the 1990 Fairfield High School graduate was offered an opportunity to coach distance runners at Sacramento State. He already had his dream job of coaching cross country and track at his alma mater. Monk could not bring himself to run out on his runners.

Much had changed for Monk when Sacramento State came calling again in 2016. He was coaching at Armijo, having left Fairfield after 10 years because he could no longer find enough students willing to meet his demands. There are never any short cuts for Monk in getting the best out of each and every one of his runners.

That explains why Monk took his Vacaville High cross country runners to Folsom High at 8 a.m. on Monday. This is his first season as the Bulldogs coach, and the Sac-Joaquin Section championships are on Saturday in Folsom. Familiarity with the course will bolster the Bulldogs as they strive to extend their season for two more weeks. To do so, one or more will have to qualify for the state meet Nov. 30. 

Monk has coached a state cross country champion, although he was not officially coaching at Armijo when Luis Grijalva won in 2016. Grijalva capped his senior year by winning the 1,600 meters at the state track championships in Clovis. He is still running as a junior at Northern Arizona University.

David Monk works with freshman Paulina Peterson on how to attack a hill on Monday.

Just as Grijavla was embarking on his final year at Armijo, Monk was contacted by Sacramento State with an offer he could not refuse. His concern in accepting it was leaving Grijalva high and dry, so he talked his former Fairfield High coach – Karl Wurzbach – into guiding his prize pupil. “He was the first guy and the only guy I thought of,” recalled Monk, who became friends with Wurzbach after high school and was the best man in his wedding.

Wurzbach and his wife, Rachel, are now coaching with Monk at Vacaville High. Their daughter, Hailey, is a sophomore and will run with the Bulldogs varsity girls team in the Division II race on Saturday. Joining Hailey will be seniors Ella and Avery Bernard. The twins’ father, Andy, is also lending Monk a hand.

None of this would have come to be had Sacramento State not fired all of its cross country and track coaches in 2018. Working with college runners was a blast for Monk, but those athletes did not need much direction because “they were already on a path.” Coaching high school runners, especially the underclassmen, gives Monk an opportunity to start from square one and set them on the right course.

“I don’t care how you good are. It’s about how much you can give of yourself,” Monk said. “I have neglected Daniel (Hernandez) and Kellen (Steplight) a little bit. They only get me one day a week. They’re so equipped. They have already laid a foundation. The other kids are blank canvasses. I need to pour more into them. It has revitalized my coaching.”

Hernandez and Steplight finished third and fourth, respectively, in the Division II race at the subsection meet last week. Whitney seniors Austin Vasquez and Ethan Hodge were the top two finishers, three seconds ahead of the Vacaville duo. That is exactly what Monk asked of his top two runners. The subsection meet is nothing more than a qualifier for the section championships. Much more will be at stake Saturday for Hernandez, a senior, and his sophomore sidekick.

“We wanted to keep it in perspective,” Monk said. “We wanted to qualify and minimize our energy expenditure. I want them to stay as fresh as they can with their physical and mental energy. I want them to run with the confidence that they know they are ready.”

Wurzbach only wishes Monk would have followed his instructions in 1988 as a sophomore at Fairfield High. Wurzbach laid out the 3,200-meter race at the section meet by predicting who would finish first and second. With the top three finishers qualifying for the state championships, Wurzbach told Monk when he would have to make his move to be in the top three. Monk did not do it.

“I hesitated in the moment and it cost me,” Monk recalled. “(Wurzbach) gives me grief about it to this day.”

Monk now knows better, and so do the Bulldogs.

All (MEL) or nothing … for now

Kyler Abramowicz sank his teeth into a large quesadilla on Nov. 7 when the Vacaville High School junior should have been at football practice. Kyler is no longer a football player, however, at least for the time being. He quit Nov. 5 at the behest of his father Dennis, a day after the Bulldogs’ leading tackler was not selected to the All-Monticello Empire League team.

Two Vacaville linebackers, senior Coulter Malone and junior Logan Cunningham, were voted to the first team. Senior Cody Hume was a second-team selection. Kyler had 72 tackles in 10 games, surpassing his three  fellow linebackers who were All-MEL selections by at least 25 apiece. If the Vacaville coaches who attended the MEL meeting could not nominate Kyler, they could have at least pointed out to those who could do so that Kyler was worthy of consideration.

A second-team or honorable mention selection might not have been enough to prevent Dennis from venting his disgust on Facebook by posting, “Way to screw over a kid. Sick to my stomach, What a (expletive) joke this has become.” Dennis did not refer to Kyler by name, writing that he was asking on behalf of a friend about “a player” who had been apparently snubbed.  Those who added comments to his post could read between the lines and knew it was Kyler.

Dennis once strolled the sidelines as a coach with the Bulldogs, but his differences with the staff led to his resignation in 2017. No one could blame Dennis from jumping to the conclusion that Kyler was being punished because his father turned his back on the program. This was just a year after Kyler’s brother Talon led the Bulldogs in tackles as a senior and was just a second-team all-league selection. When Kyler got nothing Monday, Dennis had to be thinking it was no coincidence as in “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” 

Here is the difference between Talon and Kyler. Talon was a senior when he did not get what he and his father believed he deserved. Had Dennis forced Talon to quit, Talon would have missed one playoff game before turning in his No. 32 jersey.  Kyler is a junior. If he does not return now, who knows if the coaches will allow him to play as a senior and wear No. 21 again. With Kyler having aspirations of playing in college, imagine how he will explain to a recruiter that he walked out on his team because Dennis was hell-bent on settling a score with the coaches by depriving them of his son’s services.

Kyler might not be angry as his father, but the pain is evident when he talks of what has transpired in the past four days. He would never want anyone to think of him as a quitter, but he has to answer to his father before doing so to any high school coach. In this tug of war, Kyler is the rope that is frayed at both ends.

This is not a matter of right or who has been wronged. The only score to be settled will come Nov. 15 when Vacaville hosts Elk Grove in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division II playoff game. Hopefully, Kyler will return by then with a warm welcome from grateful coaches so he can wear No. 21 again – this season.

Time for Weber State exorcism


Jake Maier will leave the ghosts to Sam Darnold. Even if the UC Davis quarterback happened to see one in a game, the senior would never admit it. He will graduate in December with a degree in communication, not parapsychology. All Maier needs to know about apparitions is to steer clear of them.

Weber State did not need ghosts to spook Maier in September 2017 when he was a sophomore making just his fourth start for the Aggies. The Long Beach City College transfer passed for 943 yards and eight touchdowns in the first three as if to prove the jump to a junior college to Division I was not all that  daunting.

Not only were the Wildcats daunting two years ago in Ogden, Utah. They were downright scary. UC Davis needed just four plays after receiving the opening kickoff to reach Weber State’s 3-yard line. Maier was sacked for a 6-yard loss on first down, and a false start penalty left the Aggies with second-and-goal at the 14. All a 7-yard pass on third down did was give Max O’Rouke a 24-yard field goal.

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Jake Maier

Those three points with the game not even four minutes old were it for the Aggies. The Wildcats answered with a 67-yard touchdown pass, a field goal and a 98-yard scoring run in the first 15 minutes. Weber State added an 84-yard punt return for six points and another scoring pass in the second quarter to lead 31-3.

The horror show ended after the Wildcats made it 41-3 in the third quarter and were nice enough not to score in the fourth. Maier chuckled when asked if he saw any ghosts that day. Even if they had appeared, he would have missed them because the Wildcats were in his face from start to finish.

Maier managed to throw for 327 yards, but he was intercepted twice and sacked five times. How about the transition from junior college to Division I not being that difficult? Maier was haunted into humility by Weber State, which finished 11-3 in 2017 and advanced to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs.

“I definitely remember how good they were in man coverages,” Maier said. “We moved the ball pretty well. Once you get inside the red zone against them, they make it extremely difficult. They present you with different looks and funky pressures. They try to confuse you  The sophomore in me at that time, it affected me and I got confused. That game taught me a lot. It was a wakeup call for me.”

To say Maier has a score to settle Saturday when Weber State pays a visit to Davis would be an understatement. The Wildcats are 5-2 and ranked fifth in the FCS poll. The Aggies are 4-4 and sit at No. 22. Three of the Aggies’ four remaining games are against teams ranked in the top 10. After Weber State comes No. 9 Montana State on Nov. 16 and  No. 8 Sacramento State on Nov. 23 in the 66th annual Causeway Classic at Hornet Stadium.

UC Davis can only afford one more loss, so the Aggies must beat two of those teams to stand any chance of returning to the FCS playoffs after reaching the postseason for the first time in 2018. Looking too far ahead  concerned Maier earlier this season when the Aggies talked of Big Sky Conference and national championships. A three-game losing streak changed their focus to now.

That was evident for UC Davis in victories over Cal Poly and Southern Utah the past two weeks, but those two teams are a combined 3-12. Weber State’s losses were against two FBS teams, San Diego State and Nevada, by a total of 12 points. When Maier looks ahead, it is only as far as Weber State.

UC Davis and Weber State did not meet in 2018, but they shared the Big Sky crown with Eastern Washington. UC Davis lost to Eastern Washington, which lost to Weber State, but Weber State lost to Northern Arizona.

“It’s all about us right now and preparing for a great opponent. Nothing else matters,” Maier said. “I like where we’re at right now. It will be as tough as it was two years ago, but it will be about how we handle some of those moments. If we take care of the ball, we’ll be OK. If you turn the ball over against them, they’re all over it.”

He’s just kicking it at Nevada

His return to Vacaville High School on Friday would have been far different if Brandon Talton was nothing more than a walk-on freshman at Nevada with no promise of ever kicking for the Wolf Pack. There would have been no talk of his 56-yard field goal as time expired to beat Purdue on Aug. 30. No one would have asked if his kick made ESPN’s Top 10 Plays and Talton replying it did at No. 3.

His father Drew would not be knocking on a wooden table when he says his son has made all 10 of his field-goal attempts. His parents would be not breathing a sigh of relief because Nevada coach Jay Norvell gave Talton a scholarship about 12 hours after telling him he would kick against Purdue. And his parents would not have been refunded thousands of dollars for a semester of tuition, room and boar

Brandon Talton

Talton would have a English class on Fridays instead of adding it to his three classes on Mondays because he has to be free on Fridays to travel with the team as he has twice in five weeks thus far. He did not need to lower his head to say grace before having breakfast Sunday to realize he has been blessed. He did anyway because as much as his life has changed since Aug. 31, he remains the same.

A bye Oct. 5 allowed Talton, who graduated from Vacaville High in June, and quarterback Carson Strong, a 2018 Will C. Wood graduate, to jump into Talton’s car and come home for the weekend. The bye was also an opportunity for them to catch their breath and get ready for seven more weeks of football.

Nevada returns to action Saturday by hosting San Jose State at 1 p.m. Strong will start as he did in four of the first five games. He was held out of the Sept. 21 game at UTEP to heal his bumps and bruises. Senior Cristian Solano led the Wolf Pack to a 37-21 win over the Miners, but the job again is Strong’s.

Talton also had to contend with a senior, Spencer Pettit, to win the kicking job. Talton was on his way to a team meeting at lunch on Aug. 30 when Norvell took Talton aside and gave him the good news. Talton sat next to Pettit in the meeting as usual and knew Pettit had already been told he was out of luck.

“I’ve never talked to Spencer about it,”  Talton said. “We’re friends. I think we got closer after that.”

Out of respect to Pettit, Talton opted to keep the good news to himself and let his teammates find out on their own. That was his plan until he ran into Strong, who gave Talton a pep talk just in case the former Bulldog got an opportunity to play. Talton eventually cut the ex-Wildcat off and told him he would be.

Talton would have preferred Strong keep it a secret, but he did not say as much. “Carson was so excited for me. He had the biggest smile on his face,” Talton said. “It was Carson who started telling everyone.”

If losing his job to a true freshman was not bad enough, Pettit got kicked in the teeth when Talton won the opener with his 56-yarder. The moment of Norvell presenting Talton with the game ball and a full scholarship after the game was caught on video with Strong providing the shout-out. “And he’s from Vacaville!”

Sleep was a priority for Talton once all the postgame interviews were finished. He turned down an invitation by his parents to go out to dinner and retreated to the five-bedroom apartment he shares with four teammates. He will move to a two-bedroom apartment next year with his sister Nicole, who transferred to Nevada after two years at Sonoma State.

“He was tired,” his father Drew said. “He just crashed.”

A modicum of normalcy had returned  when Talton met his parents for breakfast the following day.   He was not recognized wearing a Nutrishop Vacaville T-shirt and Lulu Lemon shorts instead of his No. 43 jersey. And at 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds, Talton hardly looks like a football player at a Division I university.

“It felt like a normal day,” Talton said.

Sure it was.

Aggies in rush to rebound

UC Davis offensive coordinator Tim Plough has one goal each week in devising his game plan. He wants sophomore running back Ulonzo Gilliam to carry or catch the ball 25 to 30 times. Plough would also like 15 to 20 touches for junior Tehran Thomas. If the two combine for 40 or more, it usually bodes well for the Aggies.

Gilliam and Thomas came close to 40 against top-ranked North Dakota State on Sept. 21. Gilliam had 19 rushing attempts and caught seven passes. Thomas had 11 carries and one reception. Their combined 38 touches and 173 total yards are a big reason why the Aggies gave the Bison a run for the money in a 27-16 loss.

North Dakota State had won its previous eight games by an average of 36 points, with the closest score being a 38-24 victory over Eastern Washington last January in the FCS national championship game. UC Davis earned enough respect to remain fourth in the FCS rankings instead of dropping with the loss.

The drop came this week. UC Davis fell to No. 12 after being humbled at home in a 45-20 loss to Montana, which replaced UC Davis in the top 10 after vaulting from No. 18 to No. 9. UC Davis had been in the top 10 since cracking it for the first time after rallying for a 44-37 victory over Idaho State last October.

This week also brings a long flight to Grand Forks for Saturday’s game at North Dakota, which lost 38-7 at North Dakota State on Sept. 7. By the time the Aggies come home, they will have flown 7,000 miles in three weeks to face two teams separated by 80 miles. At least they should be accustomed to jet lag by now.

A 25-point loss is not customary for UC Davis. Fingers can be pointed in several directions after the Aggies’ worst home defeat since a 34-6 loss to Southern Utah in 2015. Rankings meant nothing in those days with UC Davis finishing 2-9. They went 3-8 in 2016 and then 5-6 in 2017 in Dan Hawkins’ first season as head coach.

A 10-3 finish in 2018 raised the bar for the Aggies, who earned a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and advanced to the FCS playoffs for the first time. That makes last week’s loss much more difficult to swallow. Start with three turnovers, nine penalties, poor tackling and no sacks. UC Davis sacked Montana’s Dalton Sneed five times last October in overcoming an 18-point deficit for a 49-21 victory.

Gilliam and Thomas combined for 147 rushing yards and each scored a touchdown that day. Thomas scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 56-yard run with 10:59 to play. UC Davis got the ball back 69 seconds later when Sneed was sacked and lost a fumble at the Montana 14. Gilliam scored two plays later on a 4-yard run.

The Grizzlies were not as generous last Saturday. The Aggies did not have a rushing touchdown, extending their losing streak when they do not have one to six games. Gilliam and Thomas did not come close to Plough’s goal of combining for at least 40 touches. Gilliam had 18. Thomas finished with just eight. They combined to run for 75 yards, and Gilliam was held to a season-low 2.7 yards per carry. 

Learning more on Thomas would have made sense, but suggest that to Plough and he will explain that Thomas’ productivity is dependent on Gilliam. Thomas is 2 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than Gilliam at 5-foot-11 and 215, but Plough said Thomas is more likely than Gilliam to score on any given play.

“We love when Ulonzo starts the drives because he has earned it. He’s going to get the ball more,” Plough said. “We look at Tehran in the middle of a drive when the defense is tired and maybe Ulonzo is a little tired. (Thomas is) as fresh as a daisy and they’re breathing really hard. We look at Tehran as more of a home-run type of back. If he gets in the open and gets to full speed, he’s going to go the distance.”

The longest run for Thomas in four games this season was 18 yards against Montana. He missed the Sept. 14 game against Lehigh with an injury. Plough figures it is a matter of time before Thomas busts loose. Saturday’s game at North Dakota would be as good a time as any. 

Montana manhandles UC Davis

Montana had a score to settle with UC Davis on Saturday, and the Grizzlies did just that in a 45-20 victory. Montana avenged a 49-21 loss to UC Davis in 2018 in which the Grizzlies squandered an 18-point halftime lead. Top: Carson Crawford lunges for the goal line to score the Aggies’ first touchdown and Tehran Thomas implores the crowd to cheer. Middle: Kris Vaughn celebrates with Lance Babb II after his second touchdown reception. Bottom: UC Davis safety Tiger Garcia lays the wood to Jerry Louie-McGee to separate the Montana receiver from the ball.

Aggies receiver comes armed

Carson Crawford is nearly adept at throwing the ball as he is at catching it.

Two field goals and a 15-point deficit were all UC Davis to show had after nearly 42 minutes of futility against Montana last Oct. 27. The Aggies had a little more than a quarter to mount a comeback if they were to beat the Grizzlies for the first time in eight meetings and improve to 5-0 in the Big Sky Conference.

The defense did its part after Max O’Rourke’s 41-yard field goal by stopping Montana on fourth-and-1 at the UC Davis 34-yard line. Carson Crawford, a redshirt freshman at the time, could sense a shift in momentum. Before the offense took the field, the wide receiver learned the first play would be his.

Offensive coordinator Tim Plough called a play in which Crawford takes the ball from quarterback Jake Maier and becomes the passer. His 40-yard toss found tight end Wes Preece, who then rumbled 16 yards for a first down at the Montana 10. The Aggies scored their first touchdown two plays later.

“Forty yards is not that hard for me, especially when the guy is pretty wide open,” said Crawford, who threw for 3,010 yards and 37 touchdowns as a senior at Beaverton (Ore.) High School in 2016 after switching from receiver to quarterback. “It’s nice that the coaches have trust in me for me not to do something stupid.”

The Aggies liked reaching the end zone so much that they kept going back, doing so five times in the fourth quarter to win 49-21. Crawford capped the onslaught by catching a 5-yard touchdown pass for Maier with 5:08 to play.

Montana will have a score to settle Saturday at 1 p.m. in Davis. The Grizzlies will surely be mindful of Crawford’s arm after being burned last season. They may also want to watch out for his hands because Crawford is not only deployed for what Plough calls “exotic plays.” The sophomore has become a reliable receiver and shares the team lead with 24 catches.

Crawford needs just two more to surpass his 2018 total of 25, not that he is counting. He was content contributing on “exotic plays” in 2018 and would be so again this season if that was his role. Plough appears to have more in store for Crawford now that Keelan Doss has left UC Davis for the NFL.

“That was my role last year because we had Keelan out there,” Crawford said of Doss, who graduated with 321 receptions for 4,069 yards and 28 touchdowns. “I was nowhere near Keelan then and I’m still nowhere near Keelan. As long as we’re winning, I’m pretty much OK with anything.”

The same goes for Crawford with jersey numbers. He has no idea how he got No. 86 last year and would have been happy with it again this season had his father Chris not said otherwise. Chris wore No. 6 during his glory days as a quarterback at Portland State and ordered his son to take it when UC Davis receivers Cody Hawkins offered it to Crawford last January.

“I didn’t need a new number,” Crawford recalled. “I didn’t do enough last year where I would think I should get a new number.”

Crawford lost his father to leukemia just weeks after accepting No. 6. He has since added the Roman numeral for six to the tattoo on the inside of his left wrist. His father had the same tattoo with his favorite saying, “Press on.”

And to think Crawford almost passed on taking it. “I’m glad I did, that’s for sure,” he said. “It reminds me of him every day.”

Four of a kind will win in Reno


A quarterback from Will C. Wood High School, a kicker from Vacaville High, a running back from Vanden and a cheerleader from Dixon – Reno is known for buffets, but this four-course meal Sept. 14 would have been enough to satisfy the appetite of anyone who roots for any or all of the four schools.