Sakaguchi takes his burger … he adds the super-secret cheese blend … some applewood smoked bacon … jalapenos … Kraft barbecue sauce … we’re waiting for the judges’ scores …. and Sakaguchi wins!

That’s how Jonathan Sakaguchi, a senior English major with sports journalism dreams, might have called his own surprise victory on Oct. 29 at the Giant Eagle Ultimate Tailgreatness competition. He bested three other grill masters at a best-burger competition, with the winner earning a $2,500 Giant Eagle gift card and a trip for two to Steelers-Ravens in January 2024.

“I entered on a whim,” Sakaguchi said. “I brought my grandma’s cast-iron skillet to finish the bacon. During one round my competitors looked like a professional chef and a graduated of a culinary school. My jaw hit the floor when the judges said I won.”

Charcoal rules, he said, but the winning burgers were cooked on a cast-iron flat top gas grill. “Grill masters adapt,” he said, with a dash of nonchalance.

It’s been a wild October for Sakaguchi, who also was a member of the 2023 Homecoming Court at PennWest California.

“If I had a moment to rewind this semester,” he said, “I’d probably pick riding through town during the parade.”

Sakaguchi’s career path has been its own journey, with the non-traditional student from Gibbon Glade, Fayette County, Pa., finding a home at California in 2018. He plans to graduate in December 2023.

“We started a little wall of fame,” he said, of the recent alumni to gain experience with CUTV. “Danny Beeck, now with the Buccaneers … Colin Kirkwood, now the voice of Frostburg State sports. I came in and learned from a crew who knew what they were doing.”

Sakaguchi, who is minoring in music, is building a bit of a resume himself. He is WCAL treasurer, a crew member for CUTV and the Cal Times sports editor. When he’s not working, studying, or grilling, he dabbles as a part-time professional wrestler by the name of The Timberwolve Jaxon Hawk.

In May 2023, he learned he was a 2023 Golden Quill Finalist in the Student Excellence in Video/Broadcast Journalism for an episode of his “Rolling Through History” series on railroads.

“I’m still a big railroad fan,” he said. “What flipped the switch was the first time I heard a Penguins game and Mike Lange was the commentator.” At one game as a child, his commentary got the attention of nearby fans.

“Someone asked my mom if I was going to school for this,” Sakaguchi said.

As an announcer might say: Sakaguchi, of Gibbon Glade, Fayette County, has had an unpredictable journey in 2023, and the game’s not over yet.”