When Jay Johnson became University of Arizona’s baseball coach, it was like being named the manager of the New York Yankees.
Johnson replaced Andy Lopez as head coach after the 2015 season, and immediate success followed in 2016.
After a national championship in 2012, Arizona missed out on the NCAA tournament three years in a row. In 2014 and 2015, they were 9-21 and 12-18 in Pac-12 play, finishing in 10th and 8th respectively.
In 2016 with Johnson, the ‘Cats finished third in the conference, and found themselves in the College World Series.
“When I took the job, I never really looked at it in a time line or time table,” Johnson said. “We took the approach that we were going to build these first few teams one year at a time, make that team as good as it possibly could be and not focus on much else, and then over time allow the recruiting to catch us up.”
His strategy worked, and the ‘Cats found themselves in the Championship Series against Coastal Carolina. Arizona took game one in the best of three series, but lost the next two games in heart breaking fashion; losing consecutive one run games.
With the cinderella run, expectations are high in 2017.
Even with the heartbreak, Johnson and his team have retained their poise this season; they’re only focus is the next game in front of them, not how last season finished. To Johnson, ”every game is the Super Bowl.”
“This team has been exemplary at moving on, and not getting caught up in what happened last year with that team blazing their own trail and setting the course,” Johnson said.
Arizona has lived up to high expectations in 2017. Whether or not they will admit it, last year’s runner up finish has to be a catalyst behind this year’s success. With the No. 2 ranked schedule in the country, they’ve managed to go 27-15 overall and 9-12 in conference play, currently in 7th place in the Pac-12. Arizona is dreaming of another opportunity in Omaha.
Offensively, the ‘Cats have put on an offensive clinic. They have five guys, juniors JJ Matijevic and Jared Oliva, sophomore Alfonso Rivas, and freshman Mitchell Morimoto and Nicholas Quintana hitting over .330.
Last season, Rivas hit .247 with 26 RBI and one homerun. This season, the sophomore is hitting .381 with 4 homeruns and 42 RBI.
Oliva hit just .240 with 36 RBI in 2016; this season he’s hitting .335 and has 43 RBI, already passing last season’s RBI total.
“We made a couple of simple adjustments hitting wise, making sure my eyes stay locked in on the pitcher and not to turn my shoulders when I load,” Oliva said earlier in the season of the adjustments he’s made. “It’s helped me see the ball and that’s the biggest thing hitting. It’s developed more consistent at bats.”
‘The Cats are leading the Pac-12 in virtually every offensive category; slugging percentage, on base percentage, runs scored, hits, RBI, doubles, triples, total bases and batting average, hitting .315 as a team. Utah is a distant second in that category, hitting .289.
“We’re doing it against such high-level pitching on a consistent basis, which makes it extremely impressive,” Johnson said. “(There’s) just a lot of consistency in quality of bats one through nine, and in reality probably one through 13.”
With 13 games left in the season, there’s still no thought of the NCAA tournament and the possibility of hosting the regionals and super regionals and avenging for their gut wrenching loss in the Championship Series last year.
After all, Arizona still has 13 Super Bowls to play before that time comes. It’s a philosophy the team has embraced. JC Cloney, right handed pitcher and the team’s ace, describes Johnson as a new generation coach. He credits him for the team’s success.
“With us being a new generation and a different style of baseball, I think he connects with us more,” Cloney said earlier this season. “It allows us to play free. I think that’s what everybody saw last year. It was a free team. There was no worries … I think everyone went out and were just relaxed. I think that’s made us a lot better than I guess everyone thought.”
Brandon James is a reporter for Arizona News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at email@example.com