Sacramento State baseball is a WAC threat again, but it’s time for a new conference

·7 min read

Jorge Bojorquez is one of those grit and glue guys, invaluable beyond statistics and infield versatility.

There is proof, right on down to jarred teeth and a swollen face, grim reminders of a painful 2021 campaign. At midseason a year ago, Sacramento State’s leadoff hitter took a ball to the face against New Mexico State on the first pitch of the game. As Bojorquez tried to collect his bearings and to see if he had teeth scattered around home plate, a woman hustled down to the field. It was his mother, Erika. No one stops a mom on a mission.

She eyed her son, spoke to him for a moment, exhaled and deemed him good to go, and the son wanted to play. What leadoff man doesn’t? They’re conditioned to go. Bojorquez had three hits in Sac State’s next outing, but he felt out of sorts. An X-ray revealed why: a fracture of the jaw from that pitch. His mouth was wired shut, the joy of food consumption suddenly reduced to anything he could muster through a straw. Season over.

These days, Bojorquez is leading the Hornets charge again. He doesn’t always lead off, but he’s as reliable as sunflower seeds at a ball game. He was batting .285 with 12 doubles, 29 walks, six home runs and 30 runs entering Saturday’s action at San Jose State.

Sac State beat San Jose State 4-3 with walk-off flair in the bottom of the 11th inning on Thursday night in the home finale. Gunner Gouldsmith beat out a potential game-ending double play with a headfirst slide into first base as pinch runner Keith Torres hustled home. It was the program’s fifth consecutive victory and 14th of the last 20. Imagine if this was a Big West Conference game and not a nonleague contest. More on that later.

Sac State has won 30 games in a season for the 10th consecutive full season. No other Division I program in the state has done that, be it Cal, USC, UCLA or any of the teams in the typically strong Big West Conference.

So, yes. The Hornets are rolling. They have been battered by injuries, including losing star outfielder Cesar Valero for the season to injury after a hot start, going down with a WAC-leading 13 home runs. Valero dazzled in an early season three-homer, five-hit, 10-RBI game against Houston Baptist. All told, Sac State players have missed nearly 80 combined games due to injuries.

Reslient Hornets

But this is a resilient bunch. They have to be because the opponents don’t care how hurt you are. Sac State enters next week’s Western Athletic Conference Tournament as the No. 2 seed. Coach Reggie Christiansen and company seek the program’s fourth WAC championship since 2014, meaning a fourth trip to the NCAA regional tournament, where the goal is to reach Omaha, Nebraska, for a shot at the College World Series.

Bojorquez will be there. He may even lead them off the team bus if he isn’t driving it.

“Bojorquez, we missed him when he went down,” Christiansen said. “He really didn’t get a chance to play summer ball either. He’s a tough kid. He fills in at shortstop, plays some third, and last year was our second baseman. He can hit. He’s really big part of our team.”

Mark Orr will vouch for that. The Sac State athletic director suffered his share of aches, pains, strains and tears as a college football player at Cal, but he never took one to the face. That sport has facemasks.

“Jorge went down like a ton of bricks,” Orr recalled. “It was pretty scary. He wanted to stay in there. His mom? She might be the only one tougher than him.”

Martin Vincelli-Simard has some grit to him, too. The junior infielder is batting .275. He was a key cog on the 2019 Sac State team that went to the NCAA regionals. He has endured “the worst luck you can imagine,” Christiansen said. Vincelli-Simard before this season was stalled by illness and injuries, then got off to a slow start this season with more ailments and aches, missing three weeks to heal.

“It feels like he’s gone a full 180, one of the hottest hitters around,” Christiansen. “He never gave up. Never quit, never stopped believing.”

A 4.0-GPA student from Canada, Vincelli-Simard graduated this week. He may return with a year left of eligibility as he pursues a master’s degree.

Sac State has two tough-minded pitchers who will be paramount in the WAC Tournament in Arizona. Eli Saul is the staff ace. The sophomore righthander 6-0. He is a Major League Baseball draft prospect.

“He’s got big-league stuff,” Christiansen said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years he’s in the major leagues. We’ve won every time with him.”

The closer is Jack Zalasky of Elk Grove. He has 10 saves and three victories.

As for the WAC Tournament, Christiansen said, “The biggest thing for us is experience. We’ve got so many players who played in the NCAA Regional in 2019 still with us. Playoff baseball is different, so much different, and experience is a big factor.”

Sac State to Big West Conference?

What about long term? Sac State isn’t opposed to a long stay in the WAC, but it is not an ideal fit. The Hornets should seek a new home. It’s a logistical nightmare, with schools like Grand Canyon, rooted in Arizona, Dixie State in Utah, Seattle in Washington and New Mexico State and Utah Valley also making for quite a hike.

What would be ideal is joining the Big West Conference. That conference seeks a 12th baseball member, and you can bet the Big West has eyes on Sac State. The appeal is mutual. The Big West is heavy on California, with Hawaii the only out-of-state school. The Big West includes Cal Poly, UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine, Northridge, Long Beach State, UC San Diego, Fullerton, CSU Bakersfield, UC Riverside and UC Davis.

“It’d be great to have Sac State in the Big West,” UCD coach Tommy Nicholson said. “Imagine how fun the UCD-Sac State games would be.”

Sac State represents the state capital, and along with UCD, it would provide a bit more Northern California punch. Sac State has a nice home venue, with lights, with tradition. The Hornets have the pedigree to be that 12th Big West program. The Big West will have meetings next month to discuss adding another school. The earliest a 12th could be added would be for the 2024 season.

“The WAC has for sure been a good home for us, no question, but looking down the road, the welfare of the student-athletes makes sense,” Christiansen said. “There have been times this year where we’ve gotten into the airport here at 2:30 in the morning. Class time is missed. If we were in the Big West, I think our attendance at home games would triple. I really do. So many people in this community have ties to Big West schools.”

Orr, the Sac State AD, said his school isn’t actively or publicly seeking a move to the Big West, at least yet.

“Should the Big West or any other conference have interest in us, then certainly we’re willing to listen,” Orr said. “I know we have a coach in Reggie Christiansen who is laser-focused on the next game and the WAC Tournament.”

Orr added, “College baseball is special, and we value baseball here at Sac State. We’re invested in it. I see it as a program that can one day get to the College World Series. Reggie believes that, too. He’s the perfect coach to lead us, and I’ll do everything I can to help grow the program.”

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