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Arizona baseball: Tucson NCAA Regional preview

Brandon+Zastrow+is+high-fived+during+the+baseball+game+against+GCU+on+March+19+at+Hi+Corbett+Field.+Zastrow+gets+high-fived+for+a+successful+inning+of+pitching.+
Danielle Main
Brandon Zastrow is high-fived during the baseball game against GCU on March 19 at Hi Corbett Field. Zastrow gets high-fived for a successful inning of pitching.

For the first time since 2021, Arizona baseball will host an NCAA Tournament Regional at Hi Corbett Field

With the tournament bid, Chip Hale joins Collegiate Baseball Hall of Famer Frank Sancet as just the second head coach in the history of Arizona baseball to make the NCAA Tournament in each of his first three seasons. However, the Wildcats have failed to make it out of the regional stage with Hale at the helm, going 2-2 in the Coral Gables Regional in 2022 while losing both of their games in the Fayetteville Regional last season.

Here’s a look at the four teams that make up the Tucson Regional:

No. 1 seed: Arizona

Overall Record: 36-21
Home Record:19-7
RPI: 31

Picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12 in a pre-season coaches poll, the Wildcats won both the Pac-12 Regular Season and Tournament Championships and were awarded the No. 13 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. This is the fourth straight season that Arizona has made the NCAA Tournament and the first time hosting a regional since the 2021 Arizona team that made the College World Series. 

Arizona’s surprise success can be largely attributed to one of the most improved pitching staffs in all of baseball, with the team earned run average dropping from 5.97 (tied for ninth in the Pac-12) in 2023 to 4.33 this year (second in the Pac-12). Kevin Vance, who was hired as the pitching coach prior to the 2024 season, has received much of the credit for the staff’s turnaround. 

“Coach Vance has been awesome,” relief pitcher Dawson Netz said. “He’s done a really great job in making sure every guy knows what they need to do to get the best out of themselves.” 

The Wildcats were led by the three-man rotation of Jackson Kent, Clark Candiotti and Cam Walty. The two seniors, Walty (8-1, 2.81 ERA) and Candiotti (7-3, 3.11 ERA), finished the season holding the third and fourth best ERAs in the Pac-12 respectively, as well as the two highest win totals in the conference. Earlier in the season, it appeared that Kent was the ace of the rotation, especially after a performance against the University of Washington in which Kent gave up no runs over six innings and dropped his ERA to a conference-best 2.41. However, the sophomore faltered in his final four starts, allowing 21 earned runs over just 18.2 innings pitched and ballooning his ERA to 4.08. 

Despite losing their two most productive hitters from 2023 in Kiko Romero and Chase Davis to the MLB Draft, Arizona was able to manufacture runs in clutch moments, relying on younger players such as sophomores Brendan Summerhill and Mason White in key moments throughout the season. White finished the season second in the Pac-12 in both home runs and runs batted in, while Summerhill finished top-10 in batting average, runs batted in and doubles. Summerhill’s batting record also included a walk-off double in the final game of the regular season to clinch the Pac-12 Championship against Oregon State University.

Arizona’s walk-off win against USC to clinch the Pac-12 Tournament Championship last weekend was the team’s eighth walk-off of the season.

Hosting a regional wasn’t guaranteed even after the Wildcats won both the Pac-12 Regular Season and Tournament Championships. The final projection on the  D1baseball website before the announcement of the host sites had Arizona traveling as a No. 2 seed. This is largely due to Arizona’s RPI ranking of 31, making the Wildcats the only team to host a regional with an RPI outside the top 25. The Wildcats also hold a 1-3 record this season against other teams in the regional. However, Arizona also had the No. 1 non-conference strength of schedule in the nation and played some tough opponents on the road early in the season.

“We were battle tested a lot early,” senior right fielder Emilio Corona said. “We went through some tough games. I think going through those as a team has helped us grow and winning a couple of those close games early on in the season I think was able to create this constant belief that we’re in every ball game no matter what the score and who we’re playing.”

Corona has not made a plate appearance since taking a 97-mph fastball to the hand against Oregon State on May 16, though he served as a pinch runner, stealing a crucial base and ultimately scoring the game-winning run against USC in the Pac-12 Tournament Title. 

According to Hale, Corona will be on the roster for the regional and he thinks he’ll be able to play. Corona said that his hand is “feeling good.”

No. 2 seed: Dallas Baptist University

Overall Record: 44-13
Neutral Record: 5-1
Away Record: 14-7
RPI: 17

It’d be easy for a college baseball outsider to assume that Dallas Baptist is an easy draw as the No. 2 seed in the Tucson Regional. After all, it’s a small private university with less than 3,000 undergraduate students. All of Dallas Baptist’s sports teams aside from baseball are in Division II.

Upon further review, however, the Patriots are actually one of the most consistent programs in the nation. Dan Heefner has been the Dallas Baptist’s head coach for 17 seasons. The Patriots have made the tournament in 12 of his last 13 seasons at the helm. During their nine seasons in the Missouri Valley Conference from 2014-2022, the Patriots won the conference three times and never finished lower than third. Last year, they won the Conference USA championship while this year they finished second.

However, despite their success in making the NCAA Tournament, the Patriots have had limited success playing in it. They have yet to advance to the College World Series, stalling out at super regionals in 2011 and 2021.

Dallas Baptist beat Arizona 4-3 earlier this season to open the Frisco Classic. Their RPI of 17 is also higher than Arizona’s, as well as other regional hosts such as Oregon State and Eastern Carolina. 

“Dallas Baptist had a great year,” Hale said. “We saw their best pitcher and they were dynamite.”

The pitcher he’s referring to is junior Ryan Johnson, who has logged a 1.98 ERA over 100 innings pitched this season. The Patriots’ offense also features a plethora of weapons, from the slugging catcher Grant Jay, who logged 21 home runs this season, to infielder Tom Poole, who logged a .492 on-base percentage and a team-high 1.147 on-base plus slugging.

No. 3 seed: West Virginia University

Overall Record: 33-22
Neutral Record: 2-2
Away Record: 14-14
RPI: 37

West Virginia is not a traditional power. The Mountaineers have only made the NCAA Tournament four times in the last 28 years. However, head coach Randy Mazey appears to have turned things around in Morgantown, having guided West Virginia to the postseason in back-to-back years, a feat which hasn’t been accomplished since 1964. This will be Mazey’s final season as head coach after having announced his retirement prior to the season’s start. In response, the Mountaineers delivered the first Big 12 Championship in program history.

Some of this West Virginia team will be familiar with Hi Corbett Field, having taken two of three games against the Wildcats on their home grass in 2023. It was a star-making performance for JJ Wetherholt, a junior infielder and projected top-10 pick in the upcoming MLB Draft. Wetherholt finished the three-game series 7-for-13 with a home run, three doubles and four RBIs. Perhaps the most memorable moment was a go-ahead steal of home in the 11th inning of game one.

 “What I remember is JJ Wetherholt had a bunch of hits and a bunch of doubles, so we kinda learned that he was one of the best players in the country,” second baseman Garen Caulfield said of Arizona’s series against West Virginia last season. “They’re a really good, solid team. They play together. They play their game. They’re coached really well.”

In addition to Wetherholt, the Mountaineers have another star infielder, senior Reed Chumley, who led the team in home runs (15), RBIs (45) and total bases (117). 

No. 4 seed: Grand Canyon University

Overall Record: 34-23
Neutral Record: 2-2
Away Record: 15-11
RPI: 96

Don’t let its sub-par RPI fool you: GCU is a dangerous team. In their  three matchups this season with Arizona, the Antelopes went 2-1, including a 24-8 drubbing of the Wildcats in their most recent matchup on April 30. Since returning to Division I baseball as part of the Western Athletic Conference in 2014, GCU has made the NCAA Tournament three times while winning the conference seven times, including four in a row.

After Andy Stankiewicz departed for USC following the 2022 season, Greg Wallis was hired as head coach. This will be Wallis’ first appearance in the NCAA Tournament as a head coach, though he went to the College World Series as an assistant coach with California State University, Fullerton in 2009.

GCU played at the Tucson Regional in 2021, losing its first game 12-6 to Arizona before being bounced from the tournament by Oklahoma State University in its second game. The Antelopes are 0-4 in the NCAA Tournament thus far.

Despite a strong season, in which the Antelopes won the WAC regular season title, GCU washed out of the WAC tournament with two consecutive losses in its opening games. The only reason they earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament is because the WAC Tournament winner, Tarleton State University, is ineligible for postseason competition since they are in the process of reclassifying from Division II to Division I.

Senior Tyler Wilson has been the most productive hitter on the team, hitting .381 with 16 home runs and 63 RBIs in 54 games. Meanwhile, the expected starting pitcher for game one against Arizona, Isaac Lyon, finished the season with a 3.70 ERA and a 6-1 record while compiling 75 strikeouts and just 15 walks in over 75.1 innings pitched. Their strongest reliever, Walter Quinn, hasn’t allowed a run in his last 7.2 innings pitched.

“Nothing phases them,” Hale said, highlighting the veteran makeup of the team. “They put good at-bats together, they put the ball in play with two strikes. As we know with our weather and our field, there’s a lot of hits to be had.”

Tournament schedule:

All four teams will play on Friday, May 31 at Hi Corbett Field. Game one between Dallas Baptist and West Virginia starts at noon, while game two between Arizona and GCU starts at 6 p.m. The winners and losers of games one and two will play one another on Saturday. If Arizona wins the regional, they’ll either head to Chapel Hill to take on the No. 4 seed University of North Carolina or stay in Tucson to host a best-of-three super regional.


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