Dominic Calegari just wanted to keep playing.
By his own evaluation, he had been nothing more than a role player for his high school basketball team. Best-case scenario: he would walk-on at UC Davis or Cal Poly, help out on the scout team and that would be that.
Fortunately for Calegari, he didn’t exactly get what he wanted.
One of his teachers knew UC Davis head coach Gary Stewart, and she arranged a meeting. When that meeting arrived, Calegari walked into Stewart’s office with his lean 6-foot-10 frame, showed Stewart his film, and then took a tour of the campus. By the end of the day, he was offered a spot on the team.
It was a perfect fit.
Back then, Calegari and UC Davis were still developing. Both had room to get bigger, room to get stronger and both were still years away from finding consistent success on the basketball court.
Four years later, Calegari, a junior, is entrenched as the starting power forward for the Aggies, the fastest rising team in the Big West Conference.
Calegari and UC Davis are now bigger, stronger and hungrier than ever as they sit on the cusp of bringing back the winning tradition to a program with measured success at the Division II level.
Leading up to Saturday night’s televised home game against Long Beach State, Calegari sat down with Aggie Staff Writer Michael Gehlken to discuss how far he and the team have come. For Calegari, it is a journey that began on the ground, courtesy of 6-foot-9, 230-pound forward Jesse Lopez Low.
From an outsider’s point of view, looking at this team and comparing it to ones in years past, this is a completely different brand of basketball you guys are playing. In terms of the team, in terms of the program, this has just been one big turnaround.
Oh yeah. It’s just like, with the additions of Joe [Harden] and Todd [Lowenthal], and the experience with Mark [Payne] winning Freshman of the Year last year, and last year playing together and kind of getting a feel for each other, and then also playing in the spring – we knew in the spring what we had, and we knew it was the best by far that we’ve experienced. It’s really just a matter of executing because we know we’ve got what it takes. It’s been really frustrating so far to not win the games that we should be winning, which I feel like are the majority of them. We’ve had so many close games, but it hurts to lose each one. With each opportunity that comes, we want it that much more.
The conference schedule just began, but you guys didn’t hesitate to make an early statement, going on the road and giving a major scare to Cal State Northridge, the preseason conference favorite. After a pair of lopsided defeats to that same team last year, what do you take out of that 84-81 loss?
We went into the place kind of wanting revenge from last year because both times we played them, we didn’t really perform up to par. We definitely got blown out last year, so we had a chip in our shoulder going into it. We had the mentality going into the year that it’s really up in the air in the conference. There are no real favorites. We feel like we’re just as qualified to win it as everyone else, and we’ve stuck with that mindset. Looking back on it, we really feel like we should have won that game. We gave up so many transition points. We knew that’s what they were going to do. We gave up turnovers that turned into points. There’s a lot of mistakes that we made that kind of gave them the game, so we came away feeling good that we were able to play that poorly and stay that close.
Of all the teams in the conference, is there one you most want a win over this season?
I felt like Northridge at Northridge was a big one – we really wanted to win that one– but definitely Pacific. Obviously it’s a pretty huge rivalry, and to not have beaten them in so many years , it’s pretty astounding. Even in the past couple of years, they haven’t been that much better than us, and to lose by 40-something at their place last year was pretty ridiculous. Going up against them this year is going to be a lot of fun.
There are five seniors on the roster, including Kyle [Brucculeri] and Michael [Boone], who have been with the program for five years. How important is it to send that group off on a high note?
Pretty important because I’m going to be there next year, and I already know that I’m going to want to be respected like that and feel like the team is playing for me and to send me off on a good note. I’ve seen it already with a bunch of seniors that have already graduated. The way they finished, it’s got to be pretty bitter for them. And obviously, they’re only a year older than I am, so I’m really close to them, and I feel for them. I definitely want to be able to do it for them.
You’ve gotten noticeably bigger since first stepping foot onto campus. Even comparing your frame for last season to this season, you can see a difference. How many pounds have you put on?
From the end of the season last year until the beginning of the season this year, there’s probably 15 pounds that I’ve put on. It’s been wavering a little bit because I got sick for a little while, and then just the grinding and the practicing and everything of the season. I’m trying to keep it on, and it’s definitely helped out. I can battle a little bit more inside now, so it’s definitely noticeable.… I’ve put on 20 or 25 [pounds] since I got here.
Was that an early conversation you had with the coaching staff, getting in the weight room, putting on that weight, and then throwing it around in the post?
Yeah, absolutely. [laughs] I remember the summer I got here right after high school, I was playing in a pickup game. It was the first time I had ever stepped foot on campus to meet the guys, and they threw me into a pickup game with Jesse Lopez Low, and Gus Argenal was the coach. I just remember I was matched up against Jesse, and in the first transition play, he gave me a forearm, and I just went flying [laughs]. Just sprawled out across the ground, did a couple of tumbles, and so I knew right at that point that I needed to put on some serious weight if I was going to try to battle with some of the guys in the conference.
Coach Stewart doesn’t like to talk about team goals, but maybe you do. What are some things the team looks to do every night it’s out on the floor, and by the end of year, what does this team want to have accomplished?
We definitely want to win the conference. That’s been our goal since the beginning of the year, since we went to Europe. We’ve been talking about that and making it to the NCAA Tournament. That’s been our goal since everyone’s gotten here, since we’ve gone Division I.
From a game-to-game basis, just play our asses off pretty much. Just play as hard as we can and see what happens after that. We feel like we have the talent. I mean, our talent matches up with any other team and has been better than a lot of the teams we’ve played. It’s just a matter of going out there and executing.
MICHAEL GEHLKEN can be reached at email@example.com.