Aggie Sports sits down with athletics director Kevin Blue, discusses state of the program
As UC Davis wraps up its 2017-2018 academic year, the UC Davis athletics department likewise finds its season winding down. With 23 distinct NCAA programs competing over the course of the past 10 months, there are an abundance of performances, accomplishments and storylines to examine before the curtain officially closes on another year in Aggie sports.
For UC Davis director of athletics Kevin Blue, his second year as the head of the program was one of progress. A number of teams and individual student-athletes competed at very high levels this season, making their mark both in conference and at the national level. Even for the teams that did not win titles or get showered with accolades, Blue felt that several of these programs took an important step in the right direction.
UC Davis football exemplifies a program on the rise. Following a 2016 season that resulted in just three wins, the football program entered the 2017 campaign with a new head coach, Dan Hawkins, and a fresh playing style. Though the team still finished below .500 and missed postseason play, the Aggies managed to improve to a 5-6 record in large part behind a prolific aerial attack led by sophomore quarterback Jake Maier and junior wideout Keelan Doss.
“I think everybody is excited about the continued progress that the football team is making,” Blue said in a recent interview with the Aggie. With a sizeable recruiting class and foundational pieces like Maier and Doss set to return next fall, there is a fair amount of upside surrounding this new era of Aggie football. Blue added that he is confident in the leadership and direction Hawkins brings to the program while also acknowledging that no one can rush winning.
The Aggies will be tested early next season with a couple of premier non-conference matchups. UC Davis opens the 2018-2019 season with a game at San Jose State of the Mountain West Conference on Aug. 30. Two weeks later, the Aggies are scheduled to return to the Bay Area to take on Blue’s alma mater and Pac-12 power Stanford on Sept. 15.
“I think it’s a really good opportunity for the student-athletes to see where we measure up,” Blue said. “I expect that we’re going to compete with a lot of passion and a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of positivity. That’s certainly a game that everybody is looking forward to.”
Another UC Davis athletics program that has bounced back over the course of this past year is lacrosse. In her first year as head coach, Suzanne Isidor led the women’s lacrosse team to an 8-6 record and an appearance in the conference title game, where the Aggies suffered a one goal overtime loss to San Diego State. Despite falling short of winning the title, the Aggies’ accomplishments this season were enough to award Isidor with MPSF coach of the year honors. Junior midfielder Taylor Cuenin, who netted 37 goals and finished with a league-leading 2.85 points per game, was also praised for her performance this year by being awarded MPSF player of the year. In Blue’s eyes, Isidor’s ability to bring almost immediate success to the team and to get the most out of standouts like Cuenin this season has “really transformed” the program.
Progress was made on the pitch too. Building upon a promising 2016-2017 season that ended abruptly in the first round of the Big West conference tournament, UC Davis men’s soccer finished this year’s regular season at the top of the table. After racking up 22 points in conference, the Aggies battled their way to the Big West title game this past November, where they ultimately lost in penalty kicks to Cal State Fullerton. For its efforts this season, UC Davis’ coaching staff was recognized by United Soccer Coaches as the coaching staff of year in the far west region, and was one of eight finalists for national coaching staff of the year.
UC Davis also found tremendous success in the water this season. The women’s water polo team had a productive regular season, finishing second in conference and ranking as high as No. 8 nationally. Star seniors Paige Virgil and Greta Kohlmoos each earned all-Big West first team honors in their final season as Aggies.
The men’s water polo team was also ranked as high as No. 8 in a wildly impressive season of its own. The Aggies repeated as Western Water Polo Association champions and earned a second consecutive NCAA national tournament berth after defeating UC San Diego in the WWPA title game on Nov. 19. Senior utility Cory Laidig was awarded WWPA player of the year and his junior utility teammate, Ido Goldschmidt, was given all-America third team honors.
Additionally, UC Davis’ Child & Meisel Families Director of Men’s Water Polo, Daniel Leyson, was awarded WWPA coach of the year for the second year in a row.
“I think that one of the things that stands out about that team is that they compete and are coached in a way that they know who they are,” Blue said. “They work hard and they don’t cut corners and the work that they’ve put in, and the work that coach Leyson has put in, over the last few years is showing up in the results and we’re really excited about that continuing.”
The UC Davis sport that exhibited perhaps the most overt level of success this season was basketball. Returning from deep title runs in 2017, both the women’s and men’s basketball teams entered the new season with heightened ambitions that, at least for the most part, were realized.
For the men, the year was marked with early adversity. Senior forward Chima Moneke was suspended indefinitely from the program following a mysterious incident that occurred in southern California in February. The uncertainty surrounding Moneke’s availability down the final stretch of the regular season caused observers to question whether or not the Aggies had a legitimate chance at competing for a conference title.
Moneke never played in another game. In spite of his absence, however, the Aggies won six of their next eight games, including five straight victories to round out the regular season. A thrilling double-overtime win over UC Irvine on March 3 allowed the Aggies to clinch the Big West regular season title and guarantee the team a berth in the men’s National Invitation Tournament.
The Aggies won the conference in the regular season, but were ultimately unable to defend the Big West tournament title, falling to Cal State Fullerton in the conference semifinal game. Although the disappointing end put somewhat of a damper on an otherwise impressive season, UC Davis walked away from the 2018 campaign with a regular season title, a Big West coach of the year in head coach Jim Les and a Big West player of the year in junior guard TJ Shorts II.
“[Men’s basketball] did an extraordinary job,” Blue said. “I felt like they exhibited the type of competitive spirit and team first attitude that is necessary to be at your best, and there’s a lot of credit that is due there to the student-athletes and the coaching staff for achieving highly in less-than ideal circumstances.”
Not to be outdone, the women’s basketball program experienced an enormous amount of success of its own. The Aggies practically flew through the regular season, rattling off eight straight conference victories to begin the year. Finishing with a 14-2 record in Big West play, UC Davis secured the regular season title and cruised into the conference tournament as the Big West’s top seed.
Like the men, the women’s hopes of winning the conference tournament and securing a spot in the NCAA tournament were dashed. The Aggies were defeated by Cal State Northridge in the conference final, but because of their successful regular season, the Aggies were still invited to compete in the women’s NIT.
On the national stage, UC Davis shone. The Aggies won each of their first three NIT games, beating the likes of Idaho of the Big Sky conference, Wyoming of the Mountain West and finally Kansas State of the Big 12 conference (which is widely regarded as one of the nation’s “power five” conferences). The UC Davis run finally ended with a loss at Indiana in the WNIT quarterfinals.
The women’s basketball team turned finals heartbreak into the one of the program’s deepest national tournament runs –– one Blue believes has served as an important learning experience that will continue to strengthen the program going forward.
“I think that whenever you can have a win like beating a Big 12 team like Kansas State on the road in a postseason environment, it shows the quality of what we are doing here,” Blue said. “And that’s something that everybody associated with the program I think is very proud of, and they should be. I think that the NIT result was an indication of the quality that characterizes that program.”
UC Davis student-athletes, in a wide range of other sports, have accomplished some terrific individual feats as well. Aggie baseball’s Ryan Anderson, a redshirt junior outfielder from Pleasanton, Calif., received his first all-conference honor by being named to the Big West first team. Starting in all 53 games this season, Anderson led the team in batting average (.345), at bats (220), hits (76), runs scored (36) and tied for the team lead in RBI (36).
Softball’s Brooke Yanez, a freshman left-hander from Ventura, Calif., was recognized as the Big West’s freshman pitcher of the year, and simultaneously received a spot on the all-Big West first team. In her 26 starts this season, Yanez collected 15 wins and sported an ERA of 1.75.
In track and field, Aggie junior Kyle Clancy stole the show. Clancy finished first in the Big West in the decathlon with a score of 7,181 points –– the third-highest all-time in UC Davis history.
The state of UC Davis athletics after the 2017-2018 season is stable, yet still growing. Looking ahead, the department will be adding two new women’s sports programs very soon. Blue says that the selection process in picking the new programs –– beach volleyball and equestrian –– was thorough. The ramp-up process of hiring staff, building new facilities and recruiting athletes to get these programs running, he added, will still take a few years.
“The campus working group and the intercollegiate athletics staff left no stone unturned as far as the analysis and the amount of data that was gathered and considering the opportunity from all possible angles,” Blue explained. “I think where the process ended up is exactly the right combination of participation opportunities for the university and everybody is excited about the path forward.”
In addition to getting these programs solidified, Blue says he is committed to improving the UC Davis athletics department every day. This means increasing fundraising and revenue-generating efforts, continuing to improve fan experience at events and creating a product that the Davis community is “proud of.”
“The athletics program –– when it’s at its best –– is an opportunity to enrich the undergraduate and graduate school experience for all UC Davis students,” Blue concluded. “We do place a lot of priority on making that experience available and increasing the quality of it for all the students on the campus.”
As a mid-major program on the rise, UC Davis athletics has taken strides this season toward becoming something bigger. The changes that Blue and his department are making are tangible, and the continued success of the student-athletes will only reinforce these changes in a positive way by giving Aggie fans a product to cheer for. The upcoming season will be filled with new opportunities and new expectations of steady improvements to come.
Written by: Dominic Faria — firstname.lastname@example.org