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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Coach of the Year: Andy Lopez

Kendall Rogers        

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It's amazing how much things have changed for Arizona coach Andy Lopez, Perfect Game's National Coach of the Year.

Just a few years ago, I remember talking to Lopez after the UCLA series in Tucson, Ariz. It was then he talked about how the baseball program wasn't getting enough support, while up the road in Tempe, Ariz., Arizona State was the darling of the state, and one of the premier national powers.

Interestingly, it's now the Wildcats, not the Sun Devils, who is the national darling, and a lot of hard work went into that, culminating in Omaha last week with the Wildcats winning their fourth national title, first since 1986.

"It was all of us doing it together. It was a great group of kids and coaches on this team this year. We had some good junior leadership and the pitching just stepped up," Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said. "The fans really embraced our program and got reenergized about Arizona Baseball. We're happy now, but the future is so bright. This is a very special moment."

Winning the national title also was an incredibly special moment, a redemption of sorts, for Lopez.

Dating back to his days at Pepperdine, Lopez always has had one recruiting class every few years reach the College World Series. However, the 2009 team, which was very talented, failed to get to Omaha, partly because of some team chemistry issues. Since that point, Lopez has been very motivated to get back to Omaha.

Arizona entered the 2012 season with high hopes. It was picked to finish near the top of the Pac-12 standings, and also expected to reach the CWS. Win the national title? Probably not, but compete for a spot in Omaha? No question.

Equally as exciting as the expectations surrounding the baseball team, the program also made an important transition -- it finally moved crosstown from Frank Sancet Field, a rather stale on-campus facility, to Hi Corbett Field, a former big league spring training facility.

All those years dealing with lack of support, Lopez and his players finally had something to smile about. Hi Corbett isn't the perfect facility, but with a lot of money pumped into it with branding and other upgraded amenities, it finally drew fans to Arizona games, and created an impressive home atmosphere, even getting a few thousand fans to show up in 100-plus degree daytime temperatures during the St. John's series in the Tucson Super Regional.

Lopez isn't one for dramatic scripts, but the move to Hi Corbett is one that certainly helped his program take another step forward.

"Going to Hi Corbett was a deal breaker for this group," Lopez said. "It allowed us to be in position to host an NCAA Regional and Super Regional."

Arizona outfielder Robert Refsnyder agreed with the notion moving to Hi Corbett changed the name of the game for Lopez and the Wildcats, both this season, and also for setting the stage for a bright future.

"Just the whole setting at Hi Corbett, it's much better. We might've gotten 1 or 2,000 at a game. It felt empty and we didn't have much of a student section," Refsnyder said. "I think the first weekend of the season, we had 4,000 at a game. It's going to really help our recruiting, and it really helped our offensive approach with how tough it was to hit it out."

Lopez and the Wildcats found Hi Corbett to be a good home this season. They started the season with a home series win over North Dakota State, and didn't lose a home series until mid-April when they dropped two of three to UCLA, another College World Series team.

The next time the Wildcats returned home for a Pac-12 Conference series after the UCLA setback, they faced Oregon in what ended up being the most telling series of the season. The Wildcats dropped two of three to the Ducks, and as a result, had a 13-8 record in Pac-12 play.

Knowing that their conference mark and overall resume was good, but not great, Lopez knew his team needed a strong finish to obtain their goals. He had been burned by the NCAA Selection Committee in the past, so was hesitant to feel his program was in good shape to host an NCAA Regional. For instance, the Wildcats had one of the best teams in school history in 2008, yet, that team was sent on the road to Ann Arbor, Mich., as a No. 1 seed.

To host an NCAA Regional, he thought, the Wildcats needed to win the rest of their Pac-12 series after the Oregon setback.

Well, they did. The Wildcats won series over California, Southern California and Arizona State to finish the regular season, ending with a 20-10 league record, and in tremendous shape, finally, to host a Regional.

"I grabbed the group of guys after that Oregon series and told them if you want to host an NCAA Regional, you had better win the rest of your series, end of story," Lopez said. "They played exceptionally good baseball from that point on, and we continued that process in Omaha."

Lopez had his players well prepared for the rigors of the NCAA postseason. The Wildcats didn't lose a  game in NCAA Regional action against Missouri and Louisville. They also didn't lose a game in the Tucson Super Regional against St. John's.

Then, in Omaha, the Wildcats performed like a team that had been to the CWS several seasons in a row, using great defense and clutch pitching and hitting to go undefeated in the tournament on the way to the national title.

Overall, the Wildcats finished the postseason with a sparkling 10-0 record.

"One of the best things you can do as a coach is have players who knows how to coach themselves, and that's something Arizona had," said Pepperdine coach Steve Rodriguez, who played for Lopez on his 1992 national title team. "You could just tell they were playing with a lot of freedom and very loose with their actions. That all goes back to coaching and how you have your team prepared."

Moving forward, it'll be interesting to see how much more things change for Lopez. Everything that was a concern a few seasons ago is no more.

The Wildcats have a supportive administration, a good facility, respect on the national stage, and of course, a national title.

They also have one of college baseball's elite coaches -- Andy Lopez, someone they never should take for granted.

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