Monday, October 24, 2011

The Agony of Defeat and the Thrill of Victory

Hearing the legendary voice of Jim McKay say "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" during the opening montage of ABC's "Wide World of Sports" was an indelible part of my growing up. I don't recall the various scenes that made up the "thrill of victory" part but man-oh-man I can still see Vinko Bokataj - yes, that guy had a name - crash his way down the ski jump to define "the agony of defeat" for a generation of Americans. 

Over the span of about four hours on Sunday I experienced both parts of McKay's words, albeit in reverse. Because of scheduling, two of the teams I work with in this office were scheduled to play back-to-back - women's field hockey at 11 a.m. and women's soccer at 1 p.m. I planned on working field hockey before catching the end of soccer which was admirably covered for me by Amanda Piechowski. 

The great part of this profession is seeing hundreds of games and knowing that any one of them has the chance to be anything but routine. Sometimes you get an upset, sometimes you get a buzzer-beater finish, and sometimes there's an unbelievable highlight. But sometimes it just doesn't go your way.

Sunday, the Aggie women's field hockey team was providing me one of those major upsets. For 69 minutes and 2 seconds it stifled fourteenth-ranked Cal. Thanks to a pair of first-half goals by Emily Mecke, UC Davis enjoyed a 2-0 lead over the Golden Bears. And then they protected it. Each time Cal got an opportunity, they were turned away and it seemed like seniors Kristen Lopez and Sarah Schneider were going to get the best send-off ever.

The Aggie faithful was clearly enjoying it as well. The closer victory seemed, the louder the cheering got. The players seemed to be undaunted by the moment. But in the span of 28 seconds - all in the final minute of regulation - Cal took all of it away by doing what seemed impossible just a few seconds earlier, scoring two goals to tie a game it would eventually win in overtime.

I've seen so many games through the years that it's difficult to get emotionally invested in all of them but I couldn't help but share the Aggies' disappointment afterwards. I felt - I think we all felt - something magical was happening and for nearly 70 minutes it was. Yes, the ending was not what everyone wanted but the disappointment was caused because of the journey to get there. It was UC Davis that put Cal so far back on its heels that desperate times called for desperate measures and the Bears miraculously found a way.

The Aggie field hockey team, which regained varsity status in 2009, has already had some milestone moments; notably getting votes for the national top 20 poll this year despite having more losses than wins. It's a testament to a tough schedule and their competitiveness with that slate of games. Chalk up Sunday to a milestone moment. Yes, it wasn't a win. It can't always be about a win. But it can be about displaying heart and on Sunday that was on full display.

As I walked off the field, computer and printer in arms, leave it to an UC Davis player to thank me for my efforts on Sunday. The Aggies were the ones that needed to be thanked.

Not too far away at Aggie Soccer Field, the women's soccer team was battling UC Santa Barbara in a key Big West match. UC Davis was picked to finish seventh in the conference but has been racking up wins like I rack up calories. Four straight entering Saturday (wins, not calories unless you're counting in the thousands). 

UCSB had lost five of its last six and was at the bottom of the standings but the Gauchos were giving the Aggies - tied for second as of today - all they could handle. UC Davis needed the win. UCSB needed something good to happen. The Aggies got both.

With the match scoreless after more than 80 minutes, overtime seemed the likely destination. Then again defeat could've been just a strange, unpredictable bounce away as well. But, as head coach Maryclaire Robinson said afterwards, patience and discipline won out when Kiele Argente lofted a beautiful ball from the far right corner along the goal line.

From my vantage point atop the cooler holding sodas and water for the staff and officials, I could see Ashley Edwards perfectly positioned near the far post. The ball traveled to Edwards like she was pulling it toward her with a string. It arrived just like it was supposed to and she headed into the goal, setting off an Aggie celebration on the sidelines and in the stands where, yes, members of the field hockey team had come by to cheer.

Rachel Kahn, one of nine seniors playing their last regular-season home game, put the icing on the cake a few minutes later with a goal of her own. UC Davis then finished off the Gauchos, picked up three points in the standings and continued its surprising march through the Big West. (Folks, this team is 11-4-1 and if it ends up hosting a Big West Tournament game next week, you need to find a way to get out to Aggie Soccer Field.)

It was one day and "the thrill of victory... and the agony of defeat" each part of it. Two games and two hard-fought efforts that deserved the same result. But sometimes it's not always about the result, it's about the journey.

- Mike Robles is Assistant Athletics Director for Athletics Communications and while he does not have an extensive field hockey background, believes the penalty corner is one of the most exciting plays in sports. And a soccer ball lofted from the corner that's headed in by an Aggies is pretty exciting too.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

News, Notes and a New Bandwagoner

Congratulations to the St. Louis Cardinals.  

Not only did the Cards advance to the World Series and take the first game from the Texas Rangers on Wednesday, but - thanks to one Daniel Descalso - they've also got themselves a brand new fan: yours truly.

It's only my third year on the Athletics Communications staff here at UC Davis, so I didn't actually get to see Descalso play in an Aggie uniform. But I've heard the stories and I've seen the record books and, probably the biggest influence of all, I work with the current UC Davis baseball team.

To hear these guys talk about "Scals" and what he's accomplished as he moved through the ranks and into the pros is nothing short of listening to me talking about Lea Michele's latest performance on "Glee". That is, he's a bona fide celebrity in their eyes. You can hear the admiration and, most of all, the pride in their voices whenever they talk about him.  He was exactly where they are right now only four or five short years ago and now he's in the biggest show of all. How's that for some motivation?

Go get 'em Danny!

Your Newest Fan

Speaking of winners, UC Davis men's soccer is currently tied for first place in the Big West Conference after taking down UC Irvine - who was ranked seventh in the country - by a 2-1 score last night in yes, you guessed it, overtime.

Last night was the ninth time this season that the Aggies have played in overtime.  That's over twice as many as any other team in the Big West.  And with four games left, if UC Davis can go to extra time only two more times, they'll tie an NCAA Division I record.  In 2003, Saint Louis played 11 overtime games in a single season and in 2009 San Diego State matched that with 11 OT matches of their own.

Right now the Aggies are 6-6-2 overall and 4-3-2 in overtime games.

If you haven't checked out the squad yet, come out on Saturday as Cal Poly comes to visit. It's the Battle of the Golden Horseshoe: Futbol Edition.  Just make sure you budget a little extra time to hang out at Aggie Soccer Field. In all fairness, we did warn you ahead of time about the overtime.

- Amanda Piechowski, Assistant Director of Athletics Communications, won't even hold it against the Cardinals or Descalso that Glee has been postponed for three weeks because of the World Series being shown on FOX. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Two Aggies And A Trophy

Not one, but two Aggie grads have made the 2011 World Series, which begins Wednesday night.

The photo at left features Cardinals quantitative analyst Sig Mejdal and rookie infielder Daniel Descalso, hoisting the National League Championship Series trophy in Milwaukee.

By now, any Aggie fan who follows this blog (or doesn't, for that matter) knows about Descalso. In fact, you might know that Game 1 of the St. Louis-Texas series coincides with Descalso's 25th birthday, and you may even know that the 2007 ABCA All-West Region pick appeared on the KNBR radio show Murph and Mac Wednesday morning.

Unless you read my UC Davis Magazine piece a year ago, fewer of you are familiar with Sig Mejdal. However, you should be: the hit Bennett Miller movie Moneyball opened strong last month, so the adaptation of the fine Michael Lewis book has reopened the eyes of baseball fans to these behind-the-scenes mathematical masterminds. In essence, Mejdal is a real-life version of Jonah Hill's Peter Brand character (who, in turn, was based on the actual A's assistant GM Paul DePodesta). He creates computerized models to help predict how well a baseball prospect's previous performance will translate to major league success.

But while both the fictional Brand and real DePodesta honed their respective analytical skills at Ivy League schools, Mejdal combined his life-long love of baseball with an education received in the shadow of our university's iconic water towers. He graduated from UC Davis in 1989 with a degree in mechanical and aeronautical engineering.

In fact, Mejdal cites Lewis' bestseller for inspiring him to leave his beloved NASA research to enter the baseball industry: "It was definitely Moneyball. I was involved with the research but I had no idea that the A's were using it up north from me. It never entered my mind that teams were interested in this or using this until Moneyball," said Mejdal in his interview for the UC Davis Magazine story.

As a front-office staffer whose work has more to do with future Cardinals than present ones, Mejdal does not typically travel with the team. However, he made sure not to miss Game 5 of the NLDS series in Philadelphia, and he surely wasn't about to skip out on Game 6 at Miller Park.

When Descalso ended up on the Cardinals' wish list (he ended up going to St. Louis in the third round of the 2007 draft), Mejdal says he took some good-natured needling from his colleagues. "I was excited to get a UC Davis guy but I have to remain objective at all times," he said. "Some of the scouts were kidding me, saying 'you love him because you're from Davis, right?'"

Descalso's Aggie roots may not have appeared on Mejdal's spreadsheets, but it certainly showed up in this photo (which Mejdal sent to me this morning) As both a UC Davis grad and a baseball fan, I'm glad they got to share this moment.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Nice Scoop.

First of all, thanks to Aggie superfan John Patella for letting me know I missed this moment -- a show of slick fielding in front of the man whose name is synonymous with slick fielding.

In the past few days, I've been asked a few times if Daniel Descalso -- should he enter a game during this fall classic -- will become the first Aggie to play in the World Series. The easy answer is yes: before last September, only Steve Brown laid claim to being a former UC Davis player in the bigs. Brown, who pitched for the Angels in the early 1980s, never took the mound in the postseason.

As for other major professional sports championships*, we've had some representation over the years, mostly in football. Rich Martini (1980 Raiders), Kevin Daft (1999 Titans) and Elliot Vallejo (2008 Cardinals) all played for teams that made the Super Bowl, with Martini's Raiders claiming the Lombardi Trophy with a 27-10 win over the Eagles. Right now, a part of me roots for the Denver Broncos, for whom Daniel Fells has started every game at tight end this year.

Extend football to a few of its popular variants, and we find quarterbacks Mark Grieb and Khari Jones. Grieb's San Jose SaberCats team has made four ArenaBowls during his career. The former UC Davis genetics major earned Offensive Player of the Game in 2004, then captured the overall game MVP nod three years later.

Head north of the border to find Khari Jones, now the QBs coach for the CFL's Hamilton Tiger-Cats. (Yes, this is the same Tiger-Cats squad for which Bakari Grant has caught 27 passes for 347 yards thus far.) In 2001, Jones earned the league's Most Outstanding Player, leading Winnipeg to the Grey Cup. The Blue Bombers lost to Calgary in a massive upset, but the man once known for his gold-painted shoes helped rally Winnipeg to two second-half TDs after a rough first two quarters.

If you include what the rest of the world calls football, Quincy Amarikwa was traded to the Colorado Rapids in 2010, the year they won the MLS Cup. Amarikwa didn't play in the title game, although he did make one postseason appearance.

But enough of the football and futbol greats, this post is about baseball. As a Red Sox fan, I should not be rooting for the Cardinals. Older diehards of the Nation still wear the scars of Slaughter's Mad Dash or Gibson spoiling of the Impossible Dream, and no amount of replays of Foulke's flip to Mientkiewicz will exorcise those demons. I refuse to be that bull-headed, but I also acknowledge that Red Sox fans can be a stubborn lot, which explains why they can still tolerate repeated plays of "Sweet Caroline" after all these years.

In the end, I'm all about the grand ol' game. It's October, it's the World Series, and I'll cross my fingers to see Daniel take the field for the Birds this week.

-Mark Honbo, assistant athletics communications director, apologizes to any Aggies he might have missed in recalling UC Davis alumni who have competed in their league's biggest show.

*I do mean "professional" here. Several former UC Davis student-athletes have figured in collegiate championships at other schools, perhaps most notably Dante Dettamanti, who led Stanford to eight NCAA water polo titles. And if you extend this list to include the Olympic Games, you have all manners of Aggie athletes, ranging from our first Olympian (rugby player Babe Slater) to our most recent (bobsledder Emily Azevedo), plus three multiple gold medalists who attended UC Davis after achieving Olympic glory (track & field's Peter Snell, swimmers Cathy Carr and Debbie Meyer).

Furthermore, it's worth using this space to give a few quick honorable mentions to such NFL figures as John Herrera (Raiders exec), Jerry Attaway (49ers strength coach) and Myrel Moore (Broncos assistant coach) who all played significant roles in their respective teams' Super Bowl appearances over the decades.

Friday, October 14, 2011


First of all, women's volleyball (18-3, 4-2) has moved into a three-way tie for first place in the Big West Conference race, thanks to Cal Poly's five-set victory over UC Santa Barbara on Wednesday night.

So the Gauchos, the Long Beach State and your Aggies share a crowded perch atop the Big West mountain. And with UC Davis competing in at the Walter Pyramid tonight, one team will emerge as the lone leader by this evening. Fans not heading to the 562 area code can (and should) follow the Aggie-49er volleyball action on CBS GameTracker. Match time is 7 p.m.

* * * * *

Two of my sports have opted to use the Homecoming Week to bring their respective alumni back to campus. The women's lacrosse team hosts its Alumnae game tonight (Friday) under the lights of Aggie Stadium, while men's water polo will hold their version the following morning out at Schaal Aquatics Center. In both cases, the games provide a chance to celebrate recent accomplishments: women's lacrosse will hold a mini-ceremony honoring its NCAA statistical title (the Aggies led the nation in draw controls last spring), while men's water polo has brought back the nucleus of its 22-7 team from four years ago. That 2007 team was the last UC Davis men's water polo squad to reach the national top 10 until this year. In either case, former student-athletes may still attend their respective events by contacting the head coach.

Or if you want to watch past Aggies meet up with present ones, admission is free for both games. Quite often, I find it entertaining to see who still has some game. Now that I'm reaching the back end of my thirties, I take pride in seeing one of my contemporaries keeping up with the current whippersnappers.

* * * * *

A handful of nominations for the Cal Aggie Athletics Hall of Fame have arrived in my mailbox during the last month or so. Although I am not at liberty to divulge who they are,  it's worth taking a moment to remind Aggie fans how the process works and to offer a few resources with which to fill out nominations.

For starters, you can find the roster of past CAAHOF inductees, plus links to the online nomination form and selection critera at the official site here:

Secondly, when an individual is submitted in any category, the nomination is good for a two-year span. So a nominee submitted this fall will earn consideration for the 2011-12 induction class. If he/she does not earn induction in June, the nominee is automatically resubmitted for the 2012-13 nomination pool. No further action is necessary, unless someone wishes to provide more supporting materials. If that nominee does not earn induction in 2012-13, he/she must be renominated by the fall of 2013 to return to the pool of candidates.

In the Student-Athlete category, a nominee must be at least five years removed from his/her last collegiate competition, using the Nov. 30 nomination deadline as the precise border (i.e. for this year's pool a UC Davis student-athlete must have last competed as an Aggie on or before Nov. 30, 2006). The seniors from the 2005-06 athletics year or the 2006 fall sports are the newly eligible candidates.

For the Non-Participant category (e.g. coaches, administrators or other support roles), the eligibility window varies. If an individual leaves employment from UC Davis, he/she is eligible immediately. If an individual still works for the university in any capacity, he/she must wait five years until being honored for whatever capacity warrants Hall of Fame consideration.

Admittedly, this is a confusing piece of policy. I'll give some hypothetical examples to (hopefully) clarify how it works, and I'll do so in the language used by many of the rulebooks I consult for my job:

(1) Mr. Abbott serves as a head coach for 12 years. After the 2014-15 season, he retires from coaching to assume a post as an associate A.D. for UC Davis athletics. Still a university employee, Abbott may not be nominated for his coaching career until 2020. (2) After two years in this associate A.D. role, Abbott then decides to leave for a job in the private sector in 2017. No longer employed by the university, Abbott is immediately eligible for Hall of Fame consideration.

(3) Mrs. Bennett serves as an athletics administrator for 24 years, then retires from the university after the 2012-13 school year. Bennett is eligible for nomination immediately beginning with the Nov. 2013 deadline. (4) In 2014, after a year of retirement, Bennett is rehired to serve as a consultant for the UC Davis university relations office. Now an employee again, the five-year rule takes effect, and Bennett must wait until 2018 before she may be honored for her athletics career.

(5) Ms. Campbell coaches at UC Davis for eight years, leading her program to the NCAA title in 2015. In the summer after winning this championship, she is hired as the head coach in the same sport at UCLA. Even though she is still in the profession at another UC school, Campbell is eligible for CAAHOF consideration immediately, as she is no longer a UC Davis employee.

(6) Mr. Downing coaches a team at UC Davis for 20 years. Then in 2015, he assumes the role as a head coach in a different Aggie sport for 10 more years before retiring for good in 2025. Downing may be considered for the Hall of Fame beginning in 2020, but only for his coaching achievements in the first sport. Effective 2026, however, Downing may be considered for his coaching career in both sports.

If you're still confused, just shoot me a line and I'll let you know if a potential non-participant is on or off the table. Or just submit the name anyway. If the person is eligible, he/she goes into the pool. If not, we'll let you know.

As many already have heard, UC Davis also has a new honor called the Aggie Legacy Award. To put things briefly, this honors Aggie student-athletes not for their sports-related achivements during college (that's what the CAAHOF is for) but for what they've done since college. While most of our student-athletes go on to other fields, some remain in the athletics arena and a few go on to national prestige in those areas. Until the Legacy Award, our department had no formal way of honoring these individuals.

Or, to put it more succinctly, we never got to officially brag about who some of our former Aggies are.

In my opinion, the inaugural winner was about as good as we could have asked for: Boise State football coach Chris Petersen. Not only has he led his Bronco team to amazing success, but he has done so with a reminder that he once roamed Toomey Field: his UC Davis roots are often mentioned during national television broadcasts or in major news outlets.

More importantly, Coach Pete has set a high bar for the expectations we envisioned for the award when the idea was floated years ago. There are other Aggies whose national profile is comparable to Petersen; I hope our fans will take a few minutes to submit those names and make their cases for our celebrated UC Davis alums.

Finally, a few nominators have indicated (either in words or by the lack of information in their forms) that they don't know some of the awards or achievements an individual had at UC Davis. My short answer: do the best you can. Truthfully, my office can usually fill in most of the blanks. However, there are some large gaps in our records -- particularly for athletes who competed in the 1980s -- so relying on the athletics communications staff is a gamble. If you don't fill out that section, and we don't have records for that person, you will have effectively submitted a blank nomination that has little chance of earning induction.

To help fill out nominations for those who competed in the last decade or so, I'll point you to the Year-by-Year Athletics Recaps page on the website. This provides PDF versions of the year-in-review documents since 1999 (the year I returned to the then-Sports Information office). No, these reports don't show everything an individual has done, nor does it list every student-athlete from any given year. But the types of honors and achievements that warrant inclusion in those reports generally coincide with the level of accomplishment one needs to enter the Hall.

Anyway, it's Homecoming Week... 'tis the time of year to welcome back our past Aggies. We have two alumni games, the Pajamarino event at the train station tonight, and the football game against UTSA on Saturday.

And while we greet our alumni this weekend, I hope a few of you will take some time to honor them as well.

-Mark Honbo, athletics communications director, will miss the Pajamarino event due to a photo assignment. However, he hopes to see a few people at the new Our House spot at 808 Second Street in downtown Davis.