Baseball is his career, life

Rule No. 1 on a road trip for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats is no coach or player can go No. 2 in the bus bathroom. Jim Czajkowski has been on more buses that he would care to count in his 22 years as a minor-league pitching coach, including the past two with the Fisher Cats. The 1982 Fairfield High School graduate would much rather have a 10-hour trip stretch to 12 if a few extra stops will keep the bus smelling as fresh as a daisy.

Czajkowski speaks from experience after spending 34 seasons in professional baseball, including 12 as a player. The Fisher Cats ended their season at home Sunday when four pitchers combined on a shutout in a 1-0 win over the Harrisburg Senators. With a one-year contract, Czajkowski has no idea if the Fisher Cats or any other team will offer him a job for a 35th season. This is his second stint with the Fisher Cats. His first was in 2014. 

His 59th birthday will arrive Dec. 18, so more than half of his life has been spent coaching in Georgia, Virginia. Florida, Canada and New Hampshire. “I used to think I should get a 9 to 5 job so I could be home and play with (sons Josh and Zak),” Czajkowski said. “As long as there’s a place for me, I’m going to keep doing it.”

Jim Czajkowski

There is no way Czajkowski could do it without the support of his wife Cheri. He recalled how the couple relied on loans to make ends meet when he was pitching in the minor leagues and was not paid for going to spring training. All those years of living with a tight budget paid off in 1994 when he made it to the major leagues. Czajkowski made his debut with the Colorado Rockies on July 29, 1994, two weeks before a strike by major-league players halted the season.

“I prayed and asked God to give me just one day in the big leagues, I got 15 times what I asked for. I kept thinking, ‘Why didn’t I ask for five years?’” said Czajkowski, who had one memorable moment during those 15 days.

Czajkowski joined the Rockies in San Francisco for a four-game series with the Giants. He managed to get 75 tickets for each game so his family and friends would be on hand if he happened to pitch. The call came in the seventh inning of the second game with Barry Bonds, Matt Williams and Darryl Strawberry to bat for the Giants. Each hit a single to produce a run, but a double play bailed Czajkowski out of the inning with no more damage.

His second opportunity came in the series finale. The Rockies were fuming after accusing Giants pitchers of throwing beanballs earlier in the series. An inside pitch to Andres Gallaraga left the Colorado slugger with a broken hand. Having Czajkowski settle the score would have made sense because the no-name rookie had nothing to lose.

That was not Czajkowski’s intent after allowing home runs to Bonds and Williams. Pitching inside got him to the major leagues and he figured he had to stick with that strategy if he was going to survive. The Giants thought otherwise after he plunked Royce Clayton and Kurt Manwaring to ignite a bench-clearing brawl.

“I faced Royce in Double A and I knew he liked the ball out over the plate. I pitched him in,” Czajkowski said. “I would throw my fastball on guys’ hands and they would hate it. I knew if I was going to stay in the league, I had to pitch how I pitch. I had to own the inside.”

Czajkowski was fearless to the extent of balking at an order from manager Don Baylor to issue an intentional walk to Bonds. “I would have rather thrown four pitches inside,” Czajkowski said, “and maybe even hit him.”

His time in the major leagues amounted to 8 2/3 innings in five appearances with the Rockies. His duty now as a minor-league coach is to develop pitchers so they will make it to the major leagues and last longer than he did. 

“I play a part in getting them to where they’re going and they all want to get to the next level,” Czajkowski said. “With the technique these guys have, it’s easy to throw hard. It’s still not easy to throw strikes.”

Making a living as a minor-league pitching coach is not easy, but there is nothing Czajkowski would rather be doing. “It’s been a long road. I stuck with it even though it was tough at times,” he said. “I get to watch a baseball game every night. That’s a pretty good gig.”

Cal holds off UNLV for victory

Jayden Ott gets away from UNLV’s Kilinahe Mendiola-Jensen on his way to scoring the second of his two touchdowns as Cal pulled out a 20-14 victory on Saturday.

Hornets put faith in kicker

Missing a field goal on the next play of the first half was bad. Sitting in the locker room at halftime and wondering how many of his Sacramento State teammates were thinking he had let them down was far worse. That the miss was a chip shot from 20 yards only added to Kyle Sentkowski’s agony of the foot.

A 20-yard field goal is the same distance as an extra-point kick. Sentkowski did not miss a PAT in 2021, converting 39 for 39 to become the first kicker in program history to be perfect with at least 30 attempts. He laughed when asked if his 20-yard miss should count as a PAT attempt and erase the record.

“It might as well be,” quipped Sentkowski, who arrived at Sacramento State after two seasons at College of the Siskiyous and redshirted in 2019. The Hornets opted not to play in 2020 because of COVID-19.

Sentkowski waited two years to finally get to kick for the Hornets and then made four of five field goals in the first two games. He made three field goals in as many attempts against Northern Iowa in his home debut on Sept. 11. Then came the bus ride to Berkeley as the Hornets tested their luck against Cal.

Kyle Sentkowski

Sacramento State proved equal to the task in the first half, especially after Cal scored touchdowns on its first two possessions. The Hornets trailed 14-6 in the second quarter when an interception by Munchie Filer III gave them a shot in the arm. Sentkowski then shot himself in the foot by shanking a 37-yard field goal.

Cal stretched its lead to 21-6 by going 85 yards in just three plays to score with 4:01 to play in the first half. That left more than enough time for the Hornets to mount a drive and they did just that, going 65 yards in 11 plays as quarterback Jake Dunniway completed four of seven passes for 52 yards. The drive stalled inside Cal’s 10-yard line, but settling for three points was still a bone for an underdog.

Sentkowski buried it, however, when he missed from 20 yards out. He probably would have rather crawled under a rock than join his teammates in the locker room at halftime, but that is when he learned where he stood with the Hornets. His teammates had his back after he cost them six points.

“The offense is doing its job and getting us down there,” Sentkowski said Tuesday as the Hornets prepared for Saturday’s opener against Utah Tech at 7:30 p.m. “And to be so close, you almost feel like you wasted their opportunity. Twenty- and 30-yarders are chip shots. They should be easy in your sleep.”

Those misses could have haunted Sentkowski to the extent of worrying if head coach Troy Taylor would go with another kicker. A 2-yard touchdown run by Quarterback Asher O’Hara in the third quarter gave Sentkowski an opportunity to regain his confidence with a simple PAT. The Hornets were going to go for a two-point conversion, but a holding penalty left Sentkowski with a 31-yard extra point.

His kick split the uprights. So did his 43-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. Sacramento State scored a meaningless touchdown with 1:28 to play to make Cal’s 42-30 victory appear closer than it was.

“(Taylor) sent me out for a 43-yarder and that was pretty encouraging,” said Sentkowski, who attended Blaine High School in Washington. “We needed a lot of points, but he sent me out there to get three. For me that was like Taylor saying, ‘Hey, we trust you.’”

Sentkowski missed just one field goal in the remaining nine games and finished the season 21 of 25. He set school records for most field goals and points (102) in a season. He was a first-team selection to the All-Big West Conference team.

Taylor admits he is not a “kicking expert,” but he realizes how those misses could have derailed Sentkowski. “You miss two in a row and it’s like ‘Whats going on here?’” Taylor said. “He’s a pretty even keel kid. That (20-yarder) was the last kick he missed for quite a whole. He got on a string. He’s special.”

Wood senior cast as starter

Mason Sayre is not to be touched during football practice at Will C. Wood High School. The senior quarterback wears a red vest over his jersey to remind his teammates that he is off limits. And if the vest is not enough of a deterrent, the black cast on his left forearm will surely do the trick.

All of that does not prevent Sayre from initiating contact. He did just that last Friday on one play during an intrasquad scrimmage. Sayre was flushed from the pocket, scrambled to his right and decided to make a run for it. With a defensive back pinning him to the sideline, Sayre could have easily stayed out of harm’s way by simply stepping out of bounds.

Sayre instead lowered his shoulder and delivered as much of a hit on that defensive back as his 6-foot, 160-pound body could generate. It would be safe to say Sayre will not earn his keep this season by trying to plow for three yards and a cloud of synthetic turf. He will be better off trying to steer clear of defensive players instead of testing his luck against them.

If Sayre gets the itch, however, there is a good chance he will scratch it. “Getting hit is not my favorite thing, but it is fun to hit someone,” he said. “They don’t allow quarterbacks to hit, but let me get in on some of the fun.”

Fun became a habit for Sayre last spring with Wood’s baseball team. The shortstop led the Wildcats in batting average (.392), hits (31) and runs scored (18). Sayre also plays for the Admirals Baseball Club. The cast is a souvenir from an Admirals game during which he tagged a runner at second base and his left thumb became acquainted with the runner’s helmet.

The cast will come off Friday, just in time for Wood’s scrimmage at El Camino on Saturday. The Wildcats will kick off the season Aug. 19 at home against Pioneer of Woodland. Wood has just four home games this season. The other three are Sept. 9 against Liberty of Brentwood, Oct. 7 against Armijo and Oct. 15 against defending state Division 3A champion Vanden.

Baseball may be Sayre’s future, but football is the present. More and more high school athletes are being sold on the idea that putting all their eggs in one sport is the golden ticket to college. Sayre does not buy that. Walking away from football never entered his mind, much less crossed it.

“I love playing football with my friends. That’s what keeps me going,” Sayre said. “It’s fun to represent my school and play under the Friday night lights.”

His first opportunity to take the stage as Wood’s starting quarterback will come Aug. 19 at Wildcat Stadium. He will be just fine without the red vest and black cast.

Gonsolin’s success no surprise

Eric Valenzuela had a method to his madness in 2016 as the baseball coach at Saint Mary’s College. He allowed his players to grow long hair and beards as long as they handled their business on the field and in the lecture halls.

Tony Gonsolin took full advantage of that freedom. The 2012 Vacaville High School graduate looked then as he does now with the Los Angeles Dodgers – long black hair that looks as if it has never met a comb and a scraggly beard that could make him a distant relative of the “Duck Dynasty” family.

Saint Mary’s started 3-0 in 2016, then lost four of its next six games. Trouble was brewing, so Valenzuela decided to put his foot down and restored order. The hair and beards had to go for the Gaels to stand any chance of salvaging the season. Desperate times call for scissors and shaving cream.

Eric Valenzuela

“We weren’t playing good baseball and we had a couple of meltdowns. There were some bad attitudes,” Valenzuela recalled in a recent phone interview. “That was it for me. (The players) had to be as clean shaven as a baby’s butt. It was just like the military. We had to change what we were as a team.”

And change the Gaels did. They won their first West Coast Conference championship and earned an NCAA Regional berth for the first time in school history. Gonsolin had a great deal to do with that. He started 57 of 58 games, including five as a pitcher. The outfielder batted .307, tied for the team lead in home runs with seven and was second in RBI with 40. The right-hander made 18 appearances on the mound and finished 3-3 with a 3.86 ERA.

Tony Gonsolin

Saint Mary’s ace in 2016 was Corbin Burnes, who went 9-2 with a 2.48 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 101 2/3 innings. That led to the Milwaukee Brewers selecting Burnes in the fourth round of the 2016 Major League Baseball draft. Gonsolin went in the ninth round – surprisingly for his pitching potential.

Valenzuela might be the only person who was not surprised that the Dodgers took a chance on Gonsolin, especially as a pitcher. “With his work ethic and determination, the sky’s the limit for that guy. He’s super competitive. That’s why he is playing at a higher level,” said Valenzuela, who spent six years at Saint Mary’s and just completed his third season at Long Beach State.

Speaking of Long Beach State, Valenzuela lost his closer on Monday when Vacaville High graduate Devereaux Harrison was drafted in the ninth round by the Toronto Blue Jays. Harrison left Monday for Florida to sign his contract.

Gonsolin and Burnes were eunited as National League teammates in the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday. Saint Mary’s is the only college with two All-Stars this season, according to the college’s website. Gonsolin is tied for second in the major league with 11 victories and ranks fourth in ERA at 2.02. He has allowed just 55 hits in 93 2/3 innings.

Burnes is 7-4 with a 2.14 ERA after winning the NL Cy Young Award in 2021. Gonsolin and Burnes could have more in common than being former teammates at Saint Mary’s and 2022 All-Stars by the end of this season.

“Little Saint Mary’s could have back-to-back Cy Young Award winners,” Valenzuela said. That might be enough for Valenzuela to finally admit he is surprised.

Devereaux delivers for Dirtbags

Holman shifts into high gear

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Lily Holman (176) shifts into high gear to win the 100 at the MEL meet May 5.

Finishing second in the 200-meter dash May 5 at the Monticello Empire League track and field championships might have been just what Lily Holman needed. The Vacaville High School junior was reminded that anything less than her best will not be enough to survive two Sac-Joaquin Section meets and qualify for the state championships.

Holman made it through the section Division III meet last week and qualified in four events for the Masters, which begins Friday at Davis High. She won the 100 and 200, avenging her loss to Fairfield’s Mikelia Strong at the MEL meet. She contributed to the Bulldogs’ second-place finish in the 4×100 relay and placed fourth in the long jump.

The top six finishers in each event at Weston Ranch High in Stockton qualified for the Masters. That number will be cut in half this week with only the top three in each event earning tickets to the state meet May 27 and 28 at Buchanan High in Clovis. Holman deserved to go last year in the 4×100 relay with her sister Maya and the Oliver sisters, Aspin and Makayla. The four ranked first in the state, but they never had an opportunity to qualify for the state championships when the Masters was scratched.

And on top of that, Vacaville’s girls team was stripped of the MEL championship after it was determined a member of the team was ineligible. Last season was not a lost cause for Holman, however. Her sister and the Olivers counted on her to hold her own in the relay. The three seniors taught the sophomore what it will take to compete with the elite.

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Holman will need to put those lessons to good use Friday when she competes in the preliminaries for the 100, 200 and 4×100 relay. Her best shot to reach the state meet should be the 200. Holman ranks third in the section with a time of 24.72 seconds, according to www.Athletic.net. She is ranked fourth in the long jump and is tied for fifth in the 100. The relay team has little chance of advancing despite setting a season-best time of 49.84 seconds at the Division III meet. Three teams have cracked 48 seconds – Lincoln (46.60) and St. Mary’s (47.09) of Stockton and Lodi (47.68). Armijo is ranked fourth at 48.17, a school record.

By comparison, the Holmans and Olivers sat atop the state rankings in 2021 with a school-record time of 47.55. That was then. This is now for Holman, who can count on just one person to reach the state meet. That would be the same person she sees in the mirror each morning. Barring a miracle in the relay, she will have to make it on her own.

That actually suits Holman, who thinks of a race as a competition against herself as much as against Strong or any other runner. She knows what to do and if she does it, the results will take care of themselves. Holman admits to having a bad habit of starting slow. She keeps her head down for the first 20 meters or so. If Holman is leading when she lifts her head and opens her stride, the only race after that is for second place.

The mistake she made against Strong in the 200 at the MEL meet was letting Strong use the curve to her advantage. Strong is is the top-ranked 400 runner in the section, so she is adept at navigating the curves. Holman prevented that from happening again at the Division III meet by bolting from the blocks and attacking the curve to get out front. As in the 100, there is little chance she will be caught once her legs shift into high gear.

The 200 is tricky with the staggered start. There will be four heats Friday and the winner of each will advance to the finals along with the four runners with the next best times. Holman does not need win her heat to advance (she is the only runner in her heat to crack 25 seconds), but doing so will put her in a middle lane and allow her to keep an eye on the inside runners trying to overcome the stagger before the straightaway.

Holman will plenty of time between her three events Friday to plot strategy for each. Her heats are at 4:08 p.m. for the 4×100 relay, 5:46 for the 100 and 7:33 for the 200. She prefers to keep to herself between events and rarely sits down on the field or in the bleachers.

“I try to be alone,” Holman said. “I just want to think about my races. I try to get my head in the right place.”

If it is, she will be as well.

She takes a parachute to class

Apples fall far from trees and then there is Hailey Brunkal. The 2019 Vacaville High School graduate could be on her way to becoming an Air Force pilot just like her stepfather and sister, but she would rather jump out of a plane than try to fly it. Apples do not have far to go when they drop. When Brunkal falls, it could be from as high as 17,000 feet.

At least the 20-year-old managed to stay aboard the plane that transported the Air Force Academy’s skydiving demonstration team to perform at Wings Over Solano at Travis Air Force Base. Brunkal and her Wings of Blue teammates were scheduled to jump Saturday and Sunday, but high winds on Sunday forced them to put away their parachutes.

Hailey Brunkal

Her sister Melissa also went through the Airmanshop 490 class at the academy and became a certified jumpmaster. The 23-year-old was a senior when Brunkal arrived in Colorado Springs and helped her little sister understand why skydiving does more than teach a cadet how to overcome fear. It also turns a cadet such as Brunkal into a leader.

Brunkal has had to earn respect of her classmates so they will trust her with their lives. Skydiving has taught Brunkal how to conquer her fears. Serving as an Air Force officer will test her ability to keep those in her charge going when the going gets tough.

“You have to learn to do something uncomfortable,” Brunkal explained. “In Airmanship 490, you train 40 hours on the ground and then your first jump is solo. You have to pull the rip cord yourself. I can’t say I loved skydiving at first. It was terrifying. (Skydiving) demands respect. Now I can breathe and feel excited instead of being really, really scared.”

Fear struck Brunkal long before she received an appointment to the academy. She was afraid that following in her sister’s footsteps would make nothing more than a copycat. Her heart was set on attending the academy after touring the campus as an eighth-grader, but the thought did cross her mind that she might be better off by going her own way.

“I wondered if I should have had that moment – is this really for me?” she said. “I looked at West Point and the Navy, but I guess I’m a product of my environment. I came to the conclusion that the Air Force was for me. I wasn’t going to diverge from the family tradition.”

And now there is no place she would rather be. Her schedule is so demanding that she rarely gets to come home, but she is not without family. Cadets who jump out of perfectly good planes together also stick together when their feet – and nerves – are safe on terra firm.

“We’re tight-knit. This is my second family,” Brunkal said “I love being with them.”

Brunkal certainly spends plenty of time with her teammates. Start with six hours each weekday and another eight on Saturday. “It’s a big time commitment. That’s why so many people have reservations about doing it,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.”

Something else is on the horizon for Brunkal, however. Her skydiving days are numbered. Her career as an Air Force officer will be in medicine. She will leave the skies to her sister, who was recently assigned to be a C-17 pilot at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu.

Brunkal’s final jump will be when she graduates from the academy with the rank of second lieutenant on June 1, 2023. Brunkal and the other senior skydivers will be wearing their dress uniforms – and parachutes – when they arrive from the sky to the commencement.

Now that’s going out in style.

Putting their best feet forward

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Hailey Wurzbach won the 800 and 1,600 to set the pace for Vacaville’s girls.

Raise your hand if you are surprised that Vacaville High School swept the varsity and junior varsity team competitions Friday at the Monticello Empire League track and field championships. Now take that hand and slap yourself across the face because you should have known better. The Bulldogs won the varsity boys title by 108 points and the junior varsity boys by 123. The girls competition was slightly closer with Vacaville claiming the varsity title by 86 points and the junior varsity by 90. So much for suspense.





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Vacaville High junior Lily Holman won the 100 and finished second in the 200.



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Wood freshman Michael Ferro swept the junior varsity 110 and 300 hurdles.

Who will be QB for UC Davis?

Miles Hastings (7) is one of six quarterbacks auditioning to start for UC Davis.

Dan Hawkins has no patience for quarterbacks who are careless with the football. His son can attest to that. Cody was the starting quarterback at Colorado in 2009 when he was benched by his father are throwing two interceptions in a 38-14 loss to Texas. Those turnovers contributed to the Longhorns outscoring the Buffaloes 35-0 in the second half.

Quarterback Miles Hastings has tested Hawkins’ patience at UC Davis. Hawkins had it easy in his first three seasons after returning to coach at his alma mater. His return coincided with quarterback Jake Maier’s transfer from Long Beach City College. Maier passed for a school-record 11,163 yards and 88 touchdowns in three seasons with the Aggies. He was the Big Sky Conference Offensive Player of the Year in 2018 after leading UC Davis to a share of the conference championship and its first FCS playoff berth.

Maier’s departure after the 2019 season left the Aggies in search of a new leader behind center. The search has continued into 2022 and through two weeks of spring practice. Hawkins and his son, who is the Aggies offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, will get their last look at the six quarterback candidates in Saturday’s scrimmage until the Aggies reconvene in August to begin preparations for the Sept. 3 opener at Cal.

Hunter Rodrigues would have been the seventh candidate had he not opted to graduate early with a year of eligibility remaining. He would have had the edge in experience over the other hopefuls after starting all five games last spring and six of 12 in the fall. There was nothing to suggest Rodrigues was in jeopardy of losing the job until he sustained a concussion on a 5-yard run in the fourth quarter at Weber State on Sept. 25.

Trent Tompkins

Hastings came off the bench and to the offense’s rescue by playing with the poise of a senior despite being just a freshman. He completed seven of nine passes for 50 yards as the Aggies went 56 yards in 13 plays to take a 17-14 lead with 27 seconds to play. Trent Tompkins replaced Hastings and scored on a 1-yard plunge to cap the drive that lasted more than six minutes. UC Davis safety Erron Duncan sealed the victory with an interception on the first play of Weber State’s ensuing possession.

With Rodrigues sitting out the following week, Hastings started against Idaho and the offense sputtered with 13 points in three quarters. Tompkins took a few snaps in the first three quarters before taking over in the fourth. He accounted for every yard in a 62-yard drive that he capped by lofting a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jared Harrell. Tompkins completed all three of his passes for 34 yards and added two runs for 28.

UC Davis took the lead at 27-20 with 8:05 to play when wide receiver Carson Crawford took a pitch from Tompkins and tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to tight end McCallan Castles.

As they did against Idaho, the Aggies scored 14 points in the fourth quarter at Idaho State the following week. Those points did nothing more than make the game appear closer than it was. Rodrigues started and struggled, completing as many passes to the Bengals (two) as he did to his teammates. Idaho State turned those two interceptions into 10 points in building a 24-3 halftime lead on its way to a 27-17 victory.

The game was intriguing if for no other reason than Hawkins’ decision to go with Tompkins’ legs instead of Hastings’ arm when Rodrigues was sent to the bench after throwing his second interception on the first play of the second quarter with UC Davis trailing 14-0.

Hastings got his chance on the Aggies’ first possession in the third quarter, threw an interception on second-and-9 at Idaho State’s 16-yard line after UC Davis marched 59 yards in 12 plays and was never seen again that day. At least Rodrigues got the opportunity to throw a second interception before he got the hook from Hawkins.

Such an exit was nothing new for Hastings. The difference was his departure against Idaho State was not scripted. Hastings was told last March that he would get the third possession against Cal Poly. “Whether we went down and scored or not, (Rodrigues) was going to go back in,” recalled Hastings, who did not keep Rodrigues out for long by throwing an interception that the Mustangs returned for a touchdown and a 10-7 lead.

“Obviously, that was not how I wanted it to go,” Hastings said. “It’s football. Bad plays happen. It’s a matter of how you come back from that and shake it off.”

Hastings did get a second chance, although getting his number called with UC Davis leading 59-17 was not the best situation to show what he can do. Hastings did complete all four of his passes for 50 yards and a touchdown, but you have to wonder if Cal Poly expected UC Davis would be throwing with such a lopsided lead.

There is nothing wrong with running the ball when a game is well out of hand. Four minutes after Hastings threw his first touchdown pass with the Aggies, Tompkins scored on an 86-yard dash to make it 73-17. Tompkins was the Aggies second-leading rusher last fall with 477 yards and tied Ulonzo Gilliam for the team lead in rushing touchdowns with six.

One can throw (hopefully only to his teammates). The other can run. And there are four other candidates, with the latest being transfer Jack Newman from San Francisco City College. All Newman did last fall was pass for 3,583 yards and 38 touchdowns as the Rams finished 13-0. He did throw six interceptions, so the other UC Davis candidates should never count themselves out.

In the words of Lloyd Christmas, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”