Ever since the regional groups were announced for the 2021 NCAA baseball tournament, Arizona baseball team head coach Jay Johnson had his eyes set on a potential matchup with Vanderbilt if the team made it to the College World Series. Despite him seeing this game could potentially end up happening, Johnson and the whole team were focused on the task at hand.
“I don’t think so at all; you guys know me,” Johnson said. “It is a day-to-day, game-to-game, pitch-to-pitch, inning-to-inning type thing. All of our focus was on the regional round relative to Grand Canyon, UC Santa Barbara, Oklahoma State and then Ole Miss. Sunday night when I put the file in my file cabinet on Ole Miss, I was very happy relative to put that one away and then get on to the next one, but I haven’t thought about Vanderbilt until after the Ole Miss series was over.”
This is the first time the Arizona baseball team has made it back to the College World Series since the 2016 season. Johnson understands what it takes to compete in this type of environment and wants to ensure that the players make the most of the experience, which includes not making each game more than it needs to be.
“I think that’s a big component of being successful on the business trip is compartmentalizing both of those things,” Johnson said. “I’m anticipating a little bit different atmosphere because of [COVID-19] relative to the external things, but it is a reward for a great season, and then, we’re going there to try to win a national championship. I think it’s just being where your feet are and being present is really, really important, you know enjoying a charter flight and enjoying the things that go along with being at the College World Series.”
Johnson also mentioned that it is important to know when to draw the line between enjoying the experience and knowing when you need to train and practice to compete against the seven other teams who have also made it this far.
One of the themes that has been consistent around the Wildcats team and clubhouse this season has been staying in the moment and not making any certain game bigger than it needs to be. That goes back to the trip Arizona made to Texas earlier this year where the Wildcats swept the Frisco Classic. This trip to the College World Series with the whole country watching them play is really where Arizona will get to prove themselves to everyone who has not gotten a chance to watch them play and really show how the moment is never too big for any of them.
“I think the mental discipline that our players have exhibited to this point in the season and being able to block out things and understand that they don’t have anything to do with the play or their performance has led them to good performance,” Johnson said. “We need to really utilize our experience and our discipline in doing that, and that in of itself will help us play to our maximum potential which gives us a great chance to be successful.”
The road trip to Frisco is when freshman catcher Daniel Susac knew that this team had what it took to make it this far.
“When we went to Frisco is when I really knew we had what it took,” Susac said. “That is when I really saw our team start to come together.”
About one year ago, Susac tweeted out “Omaha” on his personal account. He went on to talk about the reasoning behind this tweet.
“For me, it was a goal,” Susac said. “When I started to see some key older players say they are coming back as well like Donta' [Williams], [Jacob] Blas, Vince [Vannelle and] Preston [Price]. When I saw that, it started to come into action. It started to come from like a goal to starting to put it into work. Then, as soon as I stepped foot onto campus, I knew that this team had what it takes, what it took and then everyday since, it has just been getting there. Now we’re there, it’s trying to make the most out of it.”
One of the general themes this time of year is that pitching wins games. While Arizona doesn’t necessarily have the marquee names in their pitching staff that every college baseball fan in the country knows, they do have the depth in the bullpen which Johnson is confident in.
Johnson reminisced back to last Sunday night when the whole team, along with their whole families and friends, were celebrating on Hi Corbett Field deep into the Tucson night. He alluded to how much moments like that mean to him as a coach.
“It’s the best,” Johnson said. “It’s the best part of this job. Without being on the inside, you don’t see the process, and a lot of coaches use the word process. The process of building to get that type of result where you get to celebrate a great achievement like that. I think we’ve done a good job of that along the way. I mean winning the Pac-12 [Championship] was a great accomplishment. No outright championship at the University of Arizona, conference championship in 29 years. That needed to be celebrated, and we were able to do that, and then regional championship, we were able to do that home. Then, Super Regional and obviously going to the College World Series.”
Johnson noted how much seeing the happiness on all of the players faces after the game and getting to hug all of them meant to him.
Johnson also did not comment when asked about the status of relievers Gil Luna and Randy Abshier for the College World Series after they were both suspended leading into the Super Regionals.
The Wildcats will kick off College World Series play against Vanderbilt on Saturday at 4 p.m. MST on ESPN.
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