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.
Tayvian Cunningham might have lost his helmet Oct. 30, but the Arizona wide receiver did not get lost on his way to the end zone against USC. The Will C. Wood High School graduate had a 73-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter and would have had a 72-yarder in the second quarter if not for his helmet.
USC cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart was on the verge of being torched by Cunningham after Cunningham caught a pass from Jamarye Joiner. Taylor-Stuart reached out in a last-ditch effort to corral Cunningham and hooked his fingers into Cunningham’s facemask. The helmet twisted off like the cap on a bottle of ketchup.
Cunningham did not break stride as his helmet was removed and continued on his way to the end zone. The facemask penalty wiped out his touchdown, however, and left the Wildcats with a first down at USC’s 22-yard line. Cunningham had to settle for a 35-yard catch. Arizona scored three plays later on Michael Wiley’s 1-yard run to cut USC’s lead to 28-14.
“(Taylor-Stuart) actually took it off pretty smoothly, just like I would take it off,” said Cunningham, who did not realize the play ended as soon as his helmet was removed. Twisting off Cunningham’s helmet would have not been so easy for Taylor-Stuart had Cunningham’s hair been styled in a high top fade as it was during his days at Will C. Wood. The senior now prefers long braids.
USC was Cunningham’s favorite team when he was a youngster learning to put his speed to good use on a football field. He now likes the Trojans for a far different reason. He has had his top two performances with the Wildcats against USC.
Cunningham caught five passes for 110 yards with a 75-yard touchdown in Arizona’s 34-30 loss to USC on Nov. 14, 2020. His 73-yard touchdown on Oct. 30 made Cunningham one of just three Arizona players to have two touchdown receptions of 70 or more yards in their careers. The other two were Junor Criner (2008-11) and Cayleb Jones (2014-15). And Cunningham could have three.
Arizona only plays USC once a season, however. There have been several games since Cunningham joined the Wildcats in 2019 that he has played with nothing to show for his efforts. He did not have a reception Saturday as Arizona snapped a 20-game losing streak with a 10-3 victory over Cal in Tucson. That was the third game this season in which he was shut out. Cunningham caught 14 passes in the first four games and just four in the past five games.
Regardless of how many passes he catches, Cunningham has made his mark at Arizona by proving a 5-foot-10, 183-pound junior college transfer from Sacramento City can hold his own against Division I players in the Pac-12 Conference. He never had the luxury of taking football for granted. He earned his way.
“I’m just embracing the whole ending of my college career,” he said. “I always believed I would be able to get here at some point. I’m just glad I was able to do it.”
What the future holds for Cunningham has yet to be determined. All he knows is nothing will ever stand in his way. “Every experience has taught me something new,” he said. “You have to give it all you got whatever the task is at hand.”
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.
“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.”
Carson Strong cried after every Will C. Wood High School football game in 2017. His tears were born of frustration more than sorrow. After the five victories, Strong did not feel as if he deserved to celebrate with his teammates. After the five losses, he could only wonder if he could have changed the outcome in any of those games.
A knee injury and the subsequent surgery reduced Strong to a sideline spectator as a senior. The quarterback was denied an encore after passing for 2,732 yards and 26 touchdowns with just four interceptions in 2016. His only comfort was those numbers leading the University of Nevada to offer him a scholarship.
Strong was also robbed of a last hurrah in basketball at Wood because his right knee refused to cooperate. To this day, Strong likes to think he could have stopped Vacaville’s Zach Perlstein from sinking two last-second shots to give the Bulldogs a sweep of the Wildcats. No one needs to remind Strong that Vacaville ended Wood’s two-year reign as the Monticello Empire League champion by going 10-0 in 2018.
“It was a dark time for me. It was definitely tough,” Strong said. “I didn’t feel like I was a part of it.”
At least Strong was spared the agony of witnessing those two defeats. He was attending classes at Nevada after leaving Wood, his family and friends at the winter break to get a head start on his college career. There is little chance he would be where he is today if he had stayed at Wood for all the senior frolic.
Behind center is where Strong will be Friday night when he becomes the first freshman to start at quarterback for Nevada in a season opener since 1998. Strong is a redshirt freshman after playing in one game last year. Purdue will be a far tougher test for Strong on Friday than Portland State was last season.
Sacrificing the second half of his senior year now seems as if it was not a sacrifice at all. And with three semesters and two summer sessions under his academic belt, he plans to earn his business degree with two years of athletic eligibility remaining. That will give him ample time on scholarship for a master’s.
From the day he left Wood, Strong realized his world would be much more demanding. He had to get serious. “I was going to 5 a.m. workouts instead of having a cakewalk senior year,” he said. “I missed all the fun stuff (at Wood), but I know what’s best for me. It was the right decision to come here early.”
Practices and scrimmages have prepared Strong for his leading role, but he knows better than to kid himself. He has not thrown a pass or taken a hit in a game since a 38-15 loss to Vacaville in the 2016 Black and Blue Bowl. He has not taken a snap in a game with his right knee in the brace he now has to wear.
None of that can shake Strong’s confidence, however. All those long days of rehabilitating his knee and dragging tackling dummies to the practice field in the chill of a Reno night to use them as targets to improve his accuracy are in the past. The future is knocking and the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Strong is at the door.
“When I get hit for the first time and get up, it’ll be like ‘I’m good. I’m rocking.’ That will knock the butterflies away,” he said. “I couldn’t be better physically, mentally and emotionally. I’m right where I want to be. I’m ready for this.”
Daniel McFadden did not expect any favors last summer when he arrived at UC Davis. The 2018 Will C. Wood High School graduate was nothing more than a walk-on with the football team. The running back was about as low as he could go without having to put away equipment and sweep the locker room after practice.
Then again, McFadden asked for it. Several smaller colleges were interested in his services after he rushed for 1,086 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior in 2017. McFadden may have even received a scholarship. UC Davis had nothing more to offer than an opportunity to try out if he could qualify for admission.
His 4.1 GPA at Wood saw to that. Any chance of playing was out of the question, however. Even dressing for home games would have been asking too much. He was a walk-on and a redshirt. He was nobody.
As McFadden labored in the shadows, sophomore Tehran Thomas and redshirt freshman Alonzo Gilliam dashed into the spotlight in 2018 by combining to rush for 1,662 yards and 19 touchdowns. McFadden did not need a depth chart to figure out where he stood on game days. He knew that would be on the sideline in street clothes.
“It’s humbles you for sure,” McFadden said after practice Aug. 17. “You just have to put your head down and keep working hard. You can’t control when you’ll get (in a game), but you can control how hard you work.”
A demanding academic workload pushed McFadden to his limits as a freshman. “I took my first math class andI barely passed with a C-minus. After that, I had to buckle down,” said McFadden, who could have hardly been blamed if he began to contemplate whether football was worth all the time and effort.
McFadden chuckled when asked if he would been missed last season had he skipped a practice or two. That was when he revealed why he could have never done that. Thomas would have noticed if the walk-on was absent.
Thomas made a habit of having McFadden stay after practice for extra work to expedite the former Wildcat’s learning curve. Thomas took interest in a freshman who would have nothing to do with the Aggies finishing 10-3, earning a share of the Big Sky Conference championship and making their first appearance in the FCS playoffs.
McFadden appreciates the favor now as much as he did a year ago. He learned what it means to be a teammate. He learned a team is only as strong as the weakest player on the roster. He learned what is expected.
“That showed that the culture here is different,” McFadden said. “(Thomas and Gilliam) are such good role models. They work so hard. If that’s what I get to shadow and work up toward, that’s just going to make me better.”
Most importantly, McFadden learned he belonged. “I’m part of it now,” he said.
Last year was not the first time McFadden felt like a stranger in football. He came to Wood from Vacaville Christian High as a junior and was informed by then-Wildcats coach Carlos Meraz that any playing time he received would have to be earned. McFadden responded to Meraz’s challenge by running for 923 yards and nine touchdowns in 2016.
“He didn’t flinch,” Meraz recalled. “That’s exactly the kind of kid he is. We went from splitting reps to being the guy.”
McFadden is one of four Wood graduates who will play at Division I universities in 2019. Two are wide receivers – Arthur Jackson is a senior at Eastern Michigan and Tayvian Cunningham a junior at Arizona. Quarterback Carson Strong is a redshirt freshman at Nevada and will start against Purdue on Aug. 30.
“I definitely have pride,” McFadden said of the foursome. “I was only there for two years, but those two years were amazing.”
Kirk Anderson has the utmost respect for all that Carlos Meraz achieved in nine years as Will C. Wood High School’s football coach. Respect apparently does not go that far these days, however, because Anderson has wasted no time in getting rid of Meraz’s pistol offense and buying new home uniforms.
Putting his stamp on the program does not mean as much to Anderson as devising an offense that suits his philosophy. That would be the spread option. The quarterback will have the option of handing off to the fullback, pitching to the halfback or carrying the ball himself. Whoever starts at quarterback could have as many rushing attempts as passing if all goes as planned for Anderson and the Wildcats this season.
“Stylistically, we’re polar opposites,” Anderson said of Meraz. “Carlos did a lot of good fundamental things. I have my own ideas and thoughts. It’s going to be a lot of hard work, but we’re making a lot of progress.”
In 2016, junior Carson Strong had 266 passing attempts and Wood had 279 rushing plays. All those attempts led to Strong throwing for 2,732 yards and 26 touchdowns. Strong missed his senior season with a knee injury and is now in competition to be the starter for the University of Nevada as a redshirt freshman.
Meraz used three quarterbacks in 2017 with Strong sidelined, and they combined to pass for 676 yards and four touchdowns. Jhalen Grayer was one of the three as a junior. He returned in 2018 to throw for 2,081 yards and 18 touchdowns. There is little chance of the 2019 quarterback coming close to those numbers.
And that is just fine with Anderson, who joined Meraz’s staff in 2018 after being hired as a physical education teacher. Anderson was no stranger to the Monticello Empire League after spending three years as an assistant at Napa. He resigned at Napa in 2017 as the football program was investigated for hazing.
Troy Mott resigned as Napa’s head coaching in March 2017 after being informed he could not hire assistants without the school’s approval. Mott’s assistants at the time were informed they would have to reapply to stay. Anderson opted not to do so and jumped to American Canyon in 2017 as an assistant.
Mott praised Anderson when asked if the Wildcats will be in good hands with their new coach. “He’s very good at teaching the game to his players. He believes fundamentals are important along with effort and a belief in what you’re doing can win games,” Mott wrote in a text message. “He really is the total package as a coach and he will grow nicely into the role of ‘CEO’ as he gains more experience.”
Anderson will make his debut Aug. 23 when Wood travels to Vintage. The home opener is Aug. 30 against Clovis East. Instead of wearing blue jerseys at home, the Wildcats will have new gray jerseys and gray pants. The white helmets remain as do the white jerseys for road games, but the Wildcats will have the option of wearing blue or white pants when they travel. The blue pants could also go with the gray jerseys at home.
Wood will host the Black and Blue Bowl against Vacaville in Wildcat Stadium for the first time on Nov. 1.