New head baseball coach swings for the fences

It ended with a “ping.”

The sound doesn’t have quite the same flair as the crack of the wooden bats in the Major Leagues, but that didn’t really matter at that moment.
The crowd had dwindled as the 11-inning game neared the four-hour mark, but the UC Davis baseball players were focused entirely on the field, as a walk-off single off junior Paul Politi’s aluminum bat gave the Aggies a victory over rival Cal Poly.

The entire UC Davis team ran out of the dugout to mob Politi in excitement, and the remaining spectators cheered while the sun set behind the center-field wall on a clear, crisp Friday afternoon.

But as the celebration continued behind him, UC Davis head coach Matt Vaughn showed little emotion.

He clapped his hands a few times, took a brief moment to look around sparsely populated Dobbins Baseball Complex and then walked at a measured pace to exchange a handshake with the opposing coach in front of home plate.

It’s the calm, steady demeanor that characterizes Vaughn as a coach, but despite his lack of displayed emotion, Vaughn’s players know he cares deeply about UC Davis baseball.

“Coach Vaughn is a very stoic individual,” said senior starting pitcher Anthony Kubpens, “but you cannot question the passion he has for this team. He’s a fiery guy and when he speaks to you, you can feel his passion.”

Vaughn first joined the UC Davis baseball program in 1988 as a freshman pitcher out of Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord, Calif.

He found success early in his career under legendary head coach Phil Swimley, but shoulder surgery prevented him from reaching his full potential.

“Before the surgery I think I would have gotten a shot to pitch [at the professional level,” he said. “ I was able to [return to] pitch at the college level and be effective, but it was really unsatisfying.”

Vaughn’s desire to remain involved with baseball prompted him to ask Swimley about the possibility of returning to UC Davis after graduation as pitching coach. Swimley was not initially open to the idea, encouraging Vaughn instead to continue applying for law school.

Vaughn said he thought Swimley was afraid of what his parents would say if he chose to give up on law school. Regardless, a call from Vaughn’s father finally convinced Swimley to allow his senior pitcher to become part of the coaching staff.

In the end it worked out for both sides as Vaughn held the position of pitching coach for the remainder of Swimley’s tenure.

When Swimley retired in 2002 following 36 years as head coach, Vaughn felt he was a strong candidate to become the program’s next top-man, but was disappointed to find out that UC Davis had opted to go with Rex Peters, who had served nine years as head coach of Chapman University.

Vaughn was so frustrated by the university’s decision that he packed up his office and prepared to leave the university for good. He threw all of his things into a duffle bag, certain that his time at UC Davis was over.

Peters attempted to contact Vaughn on multiple occasions, but Vaughn was not interested in sticking around as an assistant coach.

But over the next few weeks things changed.

Vaughn’s first child was born that summer, and the next day he met with Peters at The Graduate, a restaurant across the street from the University.

As Vaughn describes it, in the days after your first child is born “everything is right with the world,” and Vaughn agreed to stick out the season as pitching coach.

Nine years later, Vaughn finally got a chance at his long-awaited opportunity, and the first week of August 2011 remains firmly imprinted in his memory.

On Aug. 1, Peters was offered a position as assistant coach at UCLA, and the next day he took the job.

On Aug. 3, Vaughn conducted a phone interview for a job at another university. When the interview ended, he got a call from UC Davis Interim Athletic Director Nona Richardson, who asked him to come to her office.

Vaughn had no idea what would come next.

“Looking back, I went into her office unprepared,” Vaughn said. “I think I wore shorts and a collared shirt. I just thought she wanted to meet with me — I didn’t think it would be anything formal.”

The meeting turned out to be a job interview that extended over two afternoons, and at the end Richardson offered Vaughn the head coaching job.

“I was blown away,” Vaughn said. “It really felt like this was the right move and this was the right time.”

During his first season as head coach, Vaughn admits that he faces a lot more pressure now than in years past, but he is making the most of his opportunity.

While he concedes that it is unlikely his team will reach its preseason goal of winning 30 games (the Aggies are 18-26 with 12 games remaining), he is pleased with his team’s ability to fight through adversity, something he says they have struggled with in recent seasons.

UC Davis is on pace to easily eclipse last year’s win total of 18, but Vaughn’s most impressive feat may well be the way he has cultivated his pitching staff.

After losing three pitchers to the professional ranks this summer, Vaughn has effectively managed three senior starters who have played well all season. Dayne Quist, Kubpens and Tom Briner have pitched nearly every weekend for the Aggies this year, and Vaughn believes that all three have the potential to break into the professional ranks over the next few months.

But as challenging as this past summer was for Vaughn, a more difficult task lies ahead.

With Quist, Kubpens and Briner all slated to graduate in the next few months, Vaughn will need to revamp his pitching staff yet again.

And both Vaughn and his players know that filling the holes left by his senior pitchers will be nearly impossible.

“I don’t think you can replace those guys,” said redshirt freshman pitcher Craig Lanza, who recorded his first collegiate win on Sunday. “All you can do is continue to work hard next year.”

Still, Vaughn is going to continue working at the job he loves, and giving everything he has to the players he coaches.

“We know he cares about us in the same way he cares about his family,” Quist said. “It’s just about his passion for life.”

TREVOR CRAMER can be reached at sports@theaggie.org.

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