Arizona leans on veteran pitching staff in quest to repeat as national champions.
By STEVE RIVERAFS Arizona
TUCSON, Ariz. – The concept isn't exactly unique to coaches in any sport, so when the idea of the University of Arizona baseball team being "attacking champions" rather than "defending champions," Andy Lopez agreed.
"That's important because what you've accomplished last year was, yes, a tremendous event, but it's last year," said Lopez, entering his 12th season as Arizona's head coach.
Now comes the message for the 2013 team: "What do you plan on doing this year to make your own mark?"
Arizona begins its quest to repeat as NCAA champions on Friday night against Coppin State at Hi Corbett.
"Are we going to defend it, which, of course, means you are on your heels," Lopez said. "Or you can say, 'no, we're going to get that.' "
That attitude is exactly how Arizona won last year's title, on a glorious road of aggression and attack. Not once did it trail at the College World Series.
But Lopez realizes that staying at the top is without question tougher than getting there.
"It's very difficult to repeat at any level for any sport," he said.
That's another reason why telling his team not to forget the process was part of Lopez's speech when preparations for the season started. It's a far cry from what he can remember saying in 1993 when he guided Pepperdine to the NCAA title. Then he was this 37-year-old coach still trying to figure it all out. Championship or not.
"We're trying to get to our potential as a program in 2013," Lopez said.
"If it means a national championship, OK, but if it doesn't then it doesn't. We need to do what we did last year and that's play to our potential, practice to our potential and have a work ethic for that mission."
It'll happen behind leaders: Johhny Field, who has been moved to center field from left, and pitchers Konner Wade and James Farris.
Wade and Farris were impressive throughout last season, and especially the postseason. They will be Arizona's one-two punch on the mound, moving up one spot in the rotation with the departure of ace Kurt Heyer.
"The pitching staff has grown since last year," said Wade, who threw a couple of complete-game victories at the College World Seres and was on the all-tournament team. He finished 11-3 with a 3.96 ERA. "We only lost one guy (Heyer), but it's going to be tough to fill his shoes, but I think we have a lot more pieces to our bullpen. Our pitching staff is coming together."
Farris finished last year 7-3 with a 3.97 ERA and had such control near the end of the season he was the guy called on to shut down South Carolina in the championship game.
"We have a lot of potential this year," Wade said. "We have a lot of guys who can rely on."
Farris said the key will be to stay consistent and focused.
"I don't even look to see who is in the (batter's) box," Farris said.
"Everyone does. We focus on the (catcher's) glove. There are a lot of big-time guys you face, so you don't think about that. You think about what you can do."
Field will move positions while he attempts to win his second conference battle title. Last year, he hit .370 and had a .476 on-base percentage. He'll move from second in the batting order to third.
"I just have to go out and not to try and do too much," he said. "If I go out and try to do too much, that's when I struggle at the plate."
Catcher Riley Moore, infielder Brandon Dixon, second baseman Trent Gilbert and outfielder Joseph Maggi also return from last year's lineup, but the Wildcats must overcome the loss of fixtures Alex Mejia (the Pac-12 Player of the Year), Robert Refsnyder, Seth Mejias-Brean and Joey Rickerd. The losses were substantial enough that the defending national champs were only picked fifth in the preseason coaches poll of the Pac-12, behind
UCLA, Oregon State and Oregon.
Lopez said he likes his team this year, but is also realistic to say he's curious "to see what happens when the season starts. There will be some adversity and challenging times. There are at various times in the season. Hopefully we will handle them."