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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona Wildcats baseball lacks vocal leadership of championship season, but that’s OK

Arizona+Wildcats+baseball+lacks+vocal+leadership+of+championship+season%2C+but+thats+OK
Gordan Bates

Andy Lopez has a sore throat.

In his rear pocket, he carries a bag of cough drops.

The Wildcats head coach has done a lot of yelling this year, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a bit of an adjustment from last year — when he had Alex Mejia, Robert Refsnyder and Joey Rickard to do the talking on the field for him so he didn’t have to yell from nearly 100 feet away in the dugout.

It was guys like Mejia, Rickard and Refsnyder, not to mention Bobby Brown, Kurt Heyer and Seth Mejias-Brean, who helped Arizona to its first national championship in 26 years.

Now they’re all gone. The Wildcats lost their leaders, six of their top eight batters and a staff ace (Heyer).

“Nobody in this program is Mejia, Rickard, Refsnyder,” Lopez said. “That’s just a known fact. If somebody says, ‘Well, your voice is raspy a lot,’ well, it’s because I finally had to jump in a little bit more and say, ‘Hey, if you guys don’t want to do it, then I’m going to do it.’”

This year’s squad isn’t quite chopped liver, a six-game losing streak to start conference play notwithstanding.

Outfielder Johnny Field led Arizona with a .370 batting average last year, Konner Wade was Heyer’s No. 2 and pitched a complete game shutout in Omaha and pitcher James Farris had a spectacular 7.2 innings in Arizona’s College World Series-winning clincher against South Carolina. Brandon Dixon was a pinch-hitter, but without his clutch postseason play, Arizona might not be the defending champion.

But after the departure of Mejia, Refsnyder, Rickard and company to graduation and the MLB, this year’s squad is laden with freshmen.

It’s lacking the vocal leadership from a year ago – but that’s OK.

“It’s tough when you’re losing and things aren’t going well,” Field said. “It’s easy to blame and say there’s no leaders. Last year, we were winning all year, so it looked like we were doing a great job. It’s just the older guys’ responsibility to keep the younger guys plugged in and get the standards set in the program and keep looking to strive for excellence.”

After a three-game sweep of Cal over the weekend, Arizona sits at 21-11. Through 32 games last year, the Wildcats were 23-9.

In theory, at this point in the season the adjustment in leadership has made up a two-game difference.

Although, this team is not as talented as last year’s, and 20 of its last 23 games will be against talented Pac-12 foes.

And that’s also fine — there have been four repeat champions in the 38 years since USC won five in a row to open the 1970s.

Mejia was Arizona’s coach on the field last year.

Lopez rarely had to make the trip to the mound to calm a pitcher down or get the hitters together and say, “What are we doing?” because Mejia was there to do it.

“Mejia was one-of-a-kind when it came to leadership,” Field said, “just because he’s in the infield, so he can be a second pitching coach out there. He was just very vocal, talking every single pitch. He did a great job settling pitchers down.”

It helped that he might’ve been Arizona’s best player, too. He batted .357 and was the Pac-12 Player of the Year and a first-team All-American.

Players like that don’t just grow on trees.

Last week, Lopez stood by Arizona’s dugout at Hi Corbett Field.

He talked about the intense pressures of a National Championship follow-up season, which he also experienced in 1993 as the head coach at Pepperdine.

“Guys in ’92 were loose as a goose,” Lopez said, “and in ’93, they looked like they were carrying the world on their shoulders.”

He talked about the inexperience on this year’s team and a lack of a Mejia-type “take charge” leader among the more experienced players like Dixon and Field.

When a reporter asked Lopez if he would like to see that kind of leadership from his upperclassmen, he pulled the bag of cough drops out of his left rear pocket.

“Every coach in America would, heck yeah,” Lopez said. “We’d all like to marry supermodels. We’d all like to be millionaires, but we all don’t. I’d love to have 15 guys like Mejia; I would be quiet as a church mouse. I would not have any of these in my pockets right now.

“Some guys like to get on their teammates, some guys don’t. That’s life. You take it as it comes, and it’s called baseball.”

— Zack Rosenblatt is a journalism senior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu or on Twitter via @ZackBlatt.

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