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Arizona's 'unbelievable journey' ends with title

In two magical weeks in Omaha, Wildcats went from under the radar to unbeatable — and champions.

This Arizona team lost to North Dakota State in the second game of the season. This Arizona team lost — behind No. 1 starter Kurt Heyer — to Washington State in March and later got swept by New Mexico State.


This Arizona team wasn't always pretty or even good.


What did it matter? Not a darn thing come late June, as Arizona was good enough — the best, actually — in the end, with Monday night’s 4-1 win over two-time defending champion South Carolina giving the Wildcats their first NCAA baseball title since 1986.


They ended the season winning 11 consecutive games, including all 10 in the postseason for just the second time in NCAA history. Simply put, they were unbeatable at the College World Series.


"Once you get hot in the postseason, you try to stay hot," said starter James Farris, who pitched a strong Game 2, going 7 2/3 innings and giving up just two hits and one run.


"That’s what we did this year."


And they did it well, winning 18 of their final 20 games of the season.


Masterful and memorable.


The Wildcats' pitching (behind Farris, Heyer and the rest) earned the same respect as their high-powered offense with impressive start after impressive start.


The much-maligned bullpen became a crucial part of the puzzle, even though it wasn’t needed all that much in the postseason.


Robert Refsnyder came through in the clutch time and again, hitting a pair of home runs in the final three games to help the offense continue its dominant late-season performance.


And then there was the defense. Did anything get by Alex Mejia, the team’s sure-handed shortstop? How underrated is third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean, one of the most physically gifted players in the Pac-12?


But that could be said for Arizona as a whole. The Wildcats went under the radar all season until forcing their way into the picture in Omaha while the likes of top-seeded Florida and Cinderella story Stony Brook fell by the wayside.


Just two weeks ago, Arizona coach Andy Lopez said this team was the best he's had "that applies what we teach."


Apply they did. Together.


Lopez’s motto: Program and team. Nothing is more important.


"We were able to put aside ego and blend (all our talent) for the purpose of winning," said Refsnyder, who was named the CWS Most Outstanding Player. "That was the most important thing: subduing your ego and personality for the good of the team. That’s why we've been so successful this year."


They were successful in Omaha, anyways, even if they weren't always as successful over the course of the season. Even Lopez said — and he said it seemingly 100 times — that it isn’t always the best team that wins but the team that's playing the best at the right time.


There’s no better time than mid-June. Arizona, which finished 48-17, proved it.

 

It was fitting that on Monday night, it was the bottom of the order — Brandon Dixon and Trent Gilbert, to be specific — that sent UA to the top.


"It was amazing to get that opportunity to help the team out," said Dixon, who came through with the go-ahead double in the top of the ninth. "I mean, toward the end of the year I was — my main purpose was to help us defensively and then get my at‑bats when I got them. And I got one, and praise the Lord a good thing happened."


It happened a lot over the final few weeks. The only blemish in the final 12 games was to rival Arizona State.


Two weeks later, Lopez was asked about fate and destiny and whether he believes in those things. He does.


"You can’t stop it," he said. "And you have to work like a madman to get there — and do the best to accept the results."


Destiny all but dictated he’d get his second NCAA title 20 years after his first, and when Grayson Greiner's fly ball settled into Refsnyder's glove, it was over.


Lopez, who won his first title at Pepperdine in 1992 and took over at Arizona nine years later, became just the second coach in NCAA history to win titles at two schools (Augie Garrido won multiple titles at Cal State Fullerton and at Texas).


Said Farris: “This is what we wanted for him. He’s with us every day. He’s our father figure. He always talks about it (winning a national title) and how great it is. We finally understand what he is talking about."


Just before he was drenched as part of the on-field celebration, Lopez said he was at a loss for words.


"It's been an unbelievable journey," he said.


Indeed.