It turned out to be a special Sunday for Reggie Christiansen in Arizona.
The Sacramento State baseball coach soaked in the joy of victory, six in succession for an improbable march through the Western Conference Athletic Conference tournament gauntlet. He bear-hugged and high-fived all comers before the chill of a celebratory Gatorade ice dumping.
And this: Sunday’s 5-4 triumph over Grand Canyon in Mesa was Christiansen’s 400th as coach.
The momentum rolled right into Monday when Christiansen and his Hornets learned of their NCAA Regional Tournament opponent and location. A season of promise still has legs. Fire up the buses. The Hornets and their “stingers up” mantra are eager for more.
Seeded fourth, Sac State (39-23) has a shot to really stun the baseball world without having to leave Northern California. It plays top-seeded Stanford (41-11) in the Stanford Regional at 1 p.m. Friday (broadcast on ESPN3).
No. 2 UC Santa Barbara (45-9) and No. 3 Fresno State 38-14-1 are also in the double-elimination event at The Farm.
This marks the third time in six seasons that Christiansen has steered the Hornets into an NCAA Regional. This journey is the most remarkable given the team’s youth and how they got this far.
Sac State is the first program to lose a WAC Tournament opener and then run the table in becoming the first to bounce each of the other five teams in the field.
“I’ve never been a part of anything like this,” Christiansen said.
Neither has John Smith, a baseball man since the 1960s.
Smith won a program-record 872 games as Sac State’s baseball coach through 2009 and was so good and revered that the school’s baseball field bears his name and this catchy promotional phrase to attract fans: Fill the John.
Smith brought Christiansen aboard as an assistant for his final two years last decade. Christiansen is in his ninth year as head coach with Sac State, still wowing his old boss and mentor.
“What that young team with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores just did is unheard of to win a tournament like that,” said Smith, still involved with the Hornets as an administrative voice. It’s just remarkable. He’s taken three teams to an NCAA regional and this one has created the most buzz. It was the least expected.
“I’ve seen Reggie’s teams a ton, and this is by far his best coaching job. For all the years I’ve coached and watched this game, and there have been a lot of intense games, I don’t know if I was more nervous or more stressful than (Sunday in Arizona) for the championship game. I wanted his team to do well and win it.”
Smith added, “to watch that team the last few days, they’re so loose, so confident. I’ve not seen that sort of thing with a team this young. They’re not babies any more. Not diaper dandies. They’ve arrived. They’ve grown up.”
Smith recalled spending extended time with Christiansen for the first time. It was 12 years ago, at a baseball camp at the University of Kansas. Coaches stayed up until the wee hours to talk shop, to talk coaching, life, the works.
“I could tell Reggie had a lot of savvy for a young guy,” Smith said.
Smith lured him to Sac State and wanted him to be his replacement. Christiansen is a baseball lifer, a native of Ferndale who played at Menlo College, located a relay throw away from Stanford, where Christiansen worked many a baseball camp.
Christiansen has led Sac State to eight successive 30-plus winning seasons with a collection of local recruits and those from across the state. Sophomore catcher Dawsen Bacho of Novato was named the WAC Tournament MVP after batting a team-best .323 with three home runs and eight RBI. Freshman Evan Gibbons, The Bee’s Player of the Year from Franklin High School, also had a good tournament and season.
Sac State has extended Christiansen’s contract multiple times to keep other athletic directors from in state and out of state from tempting him.
Cal Boyes was the father of the Hornets baseball program, a beloved figure who became head coach in 1960 for a small-college outfit that had 13 winning seasons in his 17 years as boss. That included 11 Far West Conference championships, reaching the 1962 NAIA title game and two Pacific Coast Regional banners. He retired in 1975 when the Hornets had moved up to Division II and died last fall.
Smith’s mentor was Boyes. His dream was to coach Sac State. He nurtured the Hornets into a steady D-II power, reaching the 1988 national finals, and into the the D-I era in 1991.
Christiansen’s touch has the Hornets in full blossom with the program’s best days ahead.
“Reggie knows what it takes to win, and he doesn’t deviate,” Smith said. “He has a great knack. For some coaches, it’s all about them. That’s not Reggie. He’s demanding but not forceful, firm and he’s fair, and the kids respond. Wow have they responded.”