Petaluma five big part of SSU history

As Sonoma State University begins preparations to observe its 50th birthday (1960-2010), its campus is abuzz with the prognosis for this season's intercollegiate athletics.

According to Athletic Director Bill Fusco, the Seawolf program remains one of the tops in the country, with several of its sports teams earning top 25 rankings in pre-season polls.

"Over the past two decades, Sonoma has claimed three NCAA Division II national championships (men's and women's soccer and men's golf), while the men's and women's basketball and tennis teams, along with baseball and softball teams, are perennial regional contenders," Fusco points out.

While the 2010-11 year appears especially bright, Fusco feels the past history is extremely vital to the university and its alumni.

"The athletic department is very appreciative and grateful for those early competitors who laid the athletic foundation for SSU," he said.

"History is an important link to the past, with ties to the present, and we don't want to lose this key component."

In hopes that the current teams will not lose sight of their roots on the athletic realm, Fusco formed a historical committee to formally record sports data from the school's inception. Much of this information is stored on yellowing newspaper clips in scrapbooks.

Beginning with the 1963-64 school year, Sonoma State (along with Hayward State) was accepted as a member of the already-established Far Western Conference. San Francisco State, Humboldt State, Chico State, Sacramento State, University of California-Davis and University of Nevada made up the conference.

SSU had a humble beginning, with mostly local athletes competing against more established programs. A quintet of Petaluma athletes had a huge impact on SSU's early intercollegiate sports scene. Vern Hansen, Irv Piotrkowski, Ron Pomi, Jack Throne (all Petaluma High School athletes) and Don Vachini (a three-sport athlete at St. Vincent and a member of its Athletic Hall of Fame) all performed for the Cossacks, as they were known before assuming the current Seawolves moniker. All had the distinction of participating on SSU teams that posted initial victories for the sport.

In Sonoma State's first year of intercollegiate sports, only men's basketball and golf were offered, and none of the Petaluma five were enrolled at SSU. During the 1964-65 year, when all were students, cross country, tennis, track and wrestling were added, followed by baseball 1966.

Running cross country became a requirement for varsity basketball players and wrestlers to develop individual stamina. Coached by Eric Pearson, the school's first harriers included Hansen and Vachini. A home-course win over Hayward State became the Cossacks' initial win in the FWC.

Competing on the wrestling team, Hansen (150-pound weight class) was coached by Joel Grose. The Cossacks' lone dual meet win, a 24-20 decision over Hayward State, was the first in school history.

The 1964-65 basketball team, coached by Ed Rudloff, had the distinction of claiming the first win in school history, an 89-78 decision over Humboldt State.

Team member Vachini further distinguished himself by establishing the school's field goal percentage, 59, a mark that stood good for 10 years.

The first baseball team, coached by Henry Lasch, was assembled in March, 1966, and played a mixed varsity, JV and service-team schedule. Hansen, Piotrkowski, Pomi, Throne and Vachini all were team members.

The school's first win was a 12-1 pasting of the University of Pacific. The team's final 11-4 record against all competition (and 5-2 in the FWC) was a hint of the school's future baseball prowess.

While Throne batted .500 in a limited role, Pomi hit a solid .413 to lead the first-year squad, Hansen batted .363, while Vachini averaged .400 and received a "feeler" from the Los Angeles Angels. As a pitcher, Piotrkowski had a 2-1 won-lost record and a 2.80 ERA.

In the infancy of SSU athletics, competing in two sports was fairly common, but a few individuals distinguished themselves by participating in three sports, a demanding, iron-man feat even in those days.

Hansen and Vachini, plus six others, had the distinction of becoming the university's first three-sport athletes.

Hansen and Vachini are part of the SSU athletic history task force. At a recent meeting, they fondly remembered the camaraderie of teammates and the pride in representing the university as athletes.

Hansen, currently working in real estate risk management, noted that the trees, initially planted in 1966, are finally all grown and the campus looks complete.

Piotrowski, a practicing attorney at law, recalled the excellent condition of the then-new baseball field — one of the best-groomed in the area.

Vachini, a retired teacher and active outdoor writer, swells with pride when he sees how far the program has evolved and says he is honored to have been a part of teams that "left their footprints in the sand" for future SSU teams.