Arizona baseball coach Lopez not worried despite loss of key players
Head coach Andy Lopez and the Arizona baseball team suited up Monday afternoon for the first full week of team practice and began the work of defending its 2012 national championship.
“I’m eager,” Lopez said about the upcoming season. “We’re not up to speed by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re headed in the right direction.”
Seven months ago, the Wildcats swept two-time defending champion South Carolina in Omaha, Neb. to win the university’s fourth baseball championship, its first since 1986.
This year’s team, however, will look significantly different from last year’s squad, as there was a great deal of roster turnover in the offseason.
Ace pitcher Kurt Heyer and five of the Wildcats’ everyday starters from last season have either graduated or were drafted into the major leagues, including outfielder Robert Refsnyder, who received the 2012 College World Series Most Outstanding Player award.
But Lopez has been in this position before. In 1992, Lopez led Pepperdine to the school’s first and only national championship.
Twenty years later, he’s come to understand that roster turnover isn’t the biggest of issues.
“The biggest challenge is that the young guys come in and think they have to be super special because they play on the national championship team,“ Lopez said. “And the older guys think they have to work harder because they’re not freshman and that’s where it becomes a little tight.”
A couple of key returners from last year include junior outfielder Johnny Field, junior utility player Brandon Dixon and junior starting pitchers Konner Wade and James Farris. Field led the Wildcats with a .370 batting average and scored 72 runs in 2012.
Dixon only started in 38 of Arizona’s 65 games but came up big in the top of the ninth inning of the championship game with a go-ahead two RBI double. Wade and Farris were the number two and three starters in last year’s rotation and finished the season with an overall record of 18-6.
“It’s a great group of guys this year,” Field said. “We had to replace some guys, but the guys here are working hard and getting better and I think we’re going to be a scrappy group this year.”
Last year’s freshman class was led by closer Mat Troupe, catcher Riley Moore and second baseman Trent Gilbert. Lopez said it’s still too early to say who will emerge as a star from this year’s freshman class but the group has impressed him. He made it clear that freshman shortstop Kevin Newman would replace former Pac-12 Player of the Year Alex Mejia and is on track to replace Joey Rickard, who was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays as the leadoff hitter in the lineup.
As for who will take Kurt Heyer’s spot in the starting rotation, that has yet to be decided. With senior Tyler Hale as the only pitcher on staff, other than Wade and Farris, with more than 10 career starts, Lopez recently hinted that he might lean toward a freshman to take over at the back end of the rotation.
“Cody Moffett has done an exceptional job with Nathan Bannister as well,” Lopez said about the freshmen pitchers. “Those are the guys that have a chance in being a factor for us this year.”
Lopez stressed the fact that last year’s national championship run was last year and that this year is a new Arizona team.
He said he has learned from past experiences that character, hard work and progression are what it’s going to take to defend the national title.
“We have to get better everyday,” Lopez said. “Today we have to be better than yesterday. And if you stay on track, you can see where it will take you.”