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Friday, May 24, 2024

A farewell to four years of Aggie sports

The California Aggie’s sports editor recounts his favorite memories, moments from his time at UC Davis

Photo Credits: Courtesy, Erin Love.

It’s hard not to feel nostalgic about sports, and I, for one, have been feeling especially nostalgic lately. In just about a week, I will be graduating (virtually) from UC Davis and leaving a job that I have loved more than any other I’ve had. As I live out the final few days of my undergraduate career — with my final quarter of college confined to what feels like one never-ending Zoom meeting — I find it comforting to remember just how special the last four years have been.

It has been a pleasure to serve on this paper’s sports desk since my freshman year. I have been lucky enough to interact with some incredibly talented people during my time covering UC Davis athletics, many of whom are the athletes, coaches and administrators who make this program what it is: one of the finest places for mid-major athletics in the country. I’ll miss my job dearly.

With most of the sports we love put on hold, we fans have had nothing but time to reminisce about some of our favorite memories from the past. So, while we are all enduring life without sports and anxiously waiting for their return, for my final piece for The California Aggie, I wanted to share some of my favorite memories from the past four years of covering UC Davis athletics. 

We’re Going Dancing!

Just six months into my college experience, the UC Davis men’s basketball team delivered perhaps its greatest season since becoming a Division I program. The 2016–17 season was dream-like for the Aggies, who accomplished two historic program firsts when they were crowned Big West Conference Tournament champions and made an appearance in the NCAA Division I Tournament. 

Behind the leadership of a core group of seniors — J.T. Adenrele in the frontcourt and Darius Graham, Lawrence White and Brynton Lemar in the backcourt — and eventual Big West Tournament MVP Chima Moneke, UC Davis ripped through the regular season with an 11-5 conference record that earned them the second-highest seed when tournament play opened in Anaheim. After downing Cal Poly by double digits in round one, the Aggies opened one of the most thrilling three-game stretches the program has ever seen.

While many may think of the Big West championship as the defining game of that season for the Aggies, I consider the game that took place just prior to that one — UC Davis’ epic duel with Cal State Fullerton in the semifinals — as the highlight of that run. 

With the Aggies facing a two-point deficit and elimination with 43 seconds remaining in that contest, Lemar proceeded to deliver a truly heroic five minutes and 43 seconds of basketball. He scored each of UC Davis’ next 11 points, beginning with a clutch, game-tying jumper to send the game to overtime. After Lemar kept the Aggies in it with nine points in the extra period, Moneke was able to tip in a missed three at the buzzer, sending UC Davis to its first Big West Tournament final appearance and also sending my friends and me into a joyous frenzy in our packed living room from where we were watching.

A similar scene played out in that same living room the following evening when the Aggies grinded out a thrilling 50-47 victory over top-seeded UC Irvine to capture the Big West title and their spot in the Big Dance. The team from a town that most people outside of California had never even heard of was going to make its debut on the biggest stage in college basketball. 

Entering the NCAA Tournament as a 16 seed in the Midwest region, the Aggies were able to win another nail biter by defeating North Carolina Central in their First Four play-in game. Although the overmatched Aggies were then blown out by national powerhouse Kansas in the following contest, the loss didn’t take anything away from the inspiring story that UC Davis basketball put together that season, just over three years ago.

A New Winning Culture

I, along with many others, have written on several occasions about just how special the 2018 season of UC Davis football was, but here I am again to tell you that fall 2018 was an exceptional time to be an Aggie.

After seven straight losing seasons, all UC Davis football did in 2018 was win. With generational talents on the offensive side in All-American wideout Keelan Doss and Big Sky Conference Player of the Year quarterback Jake Maier, along with an ascending defensive unit, the Aggies went 9-2 in the regular season and 7-1 in the Big Sky. 

With so many wins, there are a number of games worth looking back on. UC Davis grabbed the nation’s attention from the jump when it defeated FBS program San Jose State in its first game of the season. The Aggies later won one of the wildest football games I have ever witnessed when they topped Idaho State in a come-from-behind overtime thriller on homecoming. Two weeks after that, they erased a 21-3 halftime deficit at Montana by scoring 46 unanswered in the second half.

When UC Davis’ final regular season game was moved to Reno, Nevada due to air quality concerns caused by the Camp Fire, the Aggies were still able to trample their Causeway rivals Sacramento State to capture their first-ever share of the Big Sky conference title. Fortunately, I was able to make the trip up to Reno that day to witness the historic accomplishment. It was amazing to see that the game taking place some 150 miles from where it was originally supposed to be held in Davis didn’t stop most of the 2,400 in attendance from cheering the Aggies to one of their most important victories to date. 

The win helped UC Davis earn the nation’s sixth overall ranking and a first-round bye in the FCS Playoffs. This set the stage for the Aggies to host their first-ever postseason game as a Division I program, which became my favorite football game that I was able to witness at UC Davis. 

At any Aggie football home game over the past two seasons, you could find me pacing back and forth on the elevated walkway to the side of the press box. It allowed me to see the game clearly while getting a sense of the atmosphere at the stadium. That evening, when UC Davis took on Northern Iowa, I was on that walkway, taking in the crisp December air and marveling at the crowd of 8,306 that filled Aggie Stadium. It was a prime setting for postseason football.

Led by an outstanding defensive performance, UC Davis rose to the challenge to claim its first ever FCS playoff victory. I still remember the energy buzzing around Aggie Stadium as the Aggies took the final kneel to run out the clock and seal the win. I remember the pride I felt when the camera fell on Head Coach Dan Hawkins, who smiled and pointed to the UC Davis logo on his hat.

Even with the lingering memory of the heartbreak that the Aggies suffered the next week in Washington, I still look back on that season with immense admiration for what the UC Davis football team was able to accomplish. 

No Heartbreak Tonight

After several years of heartbreaking losses in the Big West conference tournament, the UC Davis women’s basketball team finally captured its elusive second Big West crown. The Aggies did so in dramatic fashion, overcoming a 32-18 halftime deficit to top Hawaii 58-50 and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011.

UC Davis won its third-straight Big West regular season title in 2019, largely behind the dominance of Big West Conference Player of the Year Morgan Bertsch and fellow standout seniors, Kourtney and Karley Eaton. The Aggies were machine-like in the regular season, going 23-6 and losing just one of their 16 conference games. 

But regular season success means next to nothing when the conference tournament tips off, and the Aggies knew that better than most. After dismantling UC Irvine in the semifinals, the pressure to take home the tournament title reached a fever-pitch in the finale. Being on the losing end of the championship game in 2016 and 2018, many on the 2019 squad — Bertsch and the Eaton twins especially — knew what a victory would mean for the program.

Streaming the title game from back home in Davis, I watched in quiet disbelief as the Rainbow Wahine pounced on the Aggies in the first half, getting flashbacks from UC Davis’ championship loss to CSUN the year before. I thought to myself: “Again?” How cruel it would have been for a team with so much talent to fall short after coming so close to glory for the third time in four seasons. At halftime, I was stunned.

The Aggies, though, shrugged off their slow start and mounted one of the most exciting comebacks I have ever seen. Fueled by a lock-down defensive effort and timely buckets, UC Davis slowly chipped away at the Hawaii lead until it was within striking distance. So when junior forward Sophia Song hit an enormous, go-ahead three with just over four minutes remaining in the game, I couldn’t help but leap for joy when the ball ripped through the net. And as they say, the rest was history.

You could feel the emotions that surrounded the Aggies’ celebration at the final buzzer, and you could see what hoisting that trophy meant for a team that had to endure so many disappointing endings. It was one of the sweetest and most satisfying sports moments I have witnessed here at UC Davis, and it deserves to be remembered for years to come. 

At Long Last, Big West Champs

Much like women’s basketball, the UC Davis men’s soccer team had been haunted by a past of heartbreaking defeats in title games. That’s why when the Aggies took down UC Santa Barbara in the 2019 Big West Tournament championship game, the celebration was revelrous.

Watching the Aggies battle the Gauchos alongside a sold-out crowd of over 1,300 at Aggie Soccer Field is one of the most thrilling memories I have from the past four years. It felt as if the entire UC Davis community was there to cheer the Aggies to their first-ever Big West title. The energy and emotions running through the stands that afternoon were unmatched by any other sporting event I have been to at Davis.

Entering that afternoon having surpassed their win totals from the two previous seasons, the 12-win Aggies were a confident and capable group, determined to avenge back-to-back championship game losses at the hands of the penalty shootout. Loaded with upperclassmen leadership and underclassmen talent, it certainly felt like 2019 was the year for UC Davis to climb the mountaintop. 

So when sophomore midfielder Andy Velasquez slotted home the game’s first goal in the 55th minute, the stands and the Aggie bench erupted. It was the crucial first strike UC Davis needed to propel itself to the win. 

After about a half hour of staving off UCSB’s last efforts at an equalizer, the Aggies countered with one last breakaway goal in the waning seconds of the match to seal the victory and clinch their Big West crown. Students and spectators joined the team as it stormed the field when the final whistle blew. It was a scene filled with unbridled joy and elation for all those involved — a fantastic moment from my fourth and final year at UC Davis.

Written by Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org

Dominic Faria is The California Aggie’s outgoing sports desk editor, a position he has held since fall 2018. Prior to his editorship, he was a sports desk reporter, beginning in winter 2017. He is a senior undergraduate majoring in political science-public service and economics.

This column is a part of our 2020 Senior Issue. The rest of the issue can be foundhere.


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