Few people outside Tucson believe Arizona’s baseball team has a chance to repeat as national champion. Pac-12 coaches have pegged the Wildcats as middle of the pack in the conference, and their highest ranking in the national polls is No. 14.
Coach Andy Lopez pays no attention to the prognosticators.
“There are probably 25 teams right now that have a realistic chance of saying, ‘If we play well at the right time, at the end of the season, we have as much right as anybody to play for it all,’ ” Lopez said. “I’d like to feel that we’re one of those teams. It’s not like we lost an entire program.”
The Wildcats lost five everyday players and their staff ace from the team that went 10-0 in the postseason and thwarted South Carolina’s bid for a third consecutive title at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
Arkansas, North Carolina and Vanderbilt are among the teams expected to make strong runs at making it to the CWS.
The Razorbacks are No. 1 in the nation in three polls on the strength of five returning position players and 10 pitchers. They also are the coaches’ pick to win the Southeastern Conference after tying for third in the CWS.
North Carolina, which has missed the CWS two of the past three years after making it four years in a row, should be back in the hunt for its first national title. The Tar Heels have their top three starting pitchers back.
Vanderbilt is well-positioned for a strong season with a mix of young players from recruiting classes ranked best in the nation two years in a row and veteran players who appeared in the CWS two years ago.
Chad Holbrook takes over as coach for Ray Tanner at South Carolina, and the Gamecocks return key pieces of the team that made it to the CWS finals for the third year in a row.
Raph Rhymes, who led the nation with a .431 average, and pitchers Aaron Nola and Ryan Eades have Louisiana State believing it can make it to Omaha for the first time since 2009.
And surely there will be surprise teams like Stony Brook and Kent State were a year ago.
Arizona will lean heavily on its pitching staff to get back to Omaha. Konner Wade, who won two games at the CWS as a sophomore, heads the staff along with James Farris, who started the title-clinching game against South Carolina.
The Wildcats also have their top setup man back in lefty Tyler Crawford and their closer in Mathew Troupe.
Wade (11-3, 3.96) takes over the top starter’s role for Kurt Heyer, who led the nation in innings pitched. Lopez said Wade’s CWS experience will allow him to pitch with confidence.
“I’ve had young guys go to Omaha as freshmen or sophomores and then when they come back the next year, they walk differently, they talk differently, they throw their bullpens differently,” Lopez said.
Arizona has back the Pac-12’s leading hitter in Johnny Field (.370). The biggest question is at shortstop, where freshman Kevin Newman appears set to take over for Pac-12 player of the year Alex Mejia at shortstop.
As with any team, Lopez said, a big key will be how the newcomers adjust to the college game.
“With the younger guys, there should be a little bit of, ‘Hey, we’re playing at the University of Arizona, they just won the national title, let’s try to continue it,’” he said. “The balancing act to that is you hope the guys don’t try to conquer the world in their first at-bat, strike out 15 guys with one pitch and do all the things that you would expect young people to do when they have the title of defending national champion and they’ve never played a college baseball game.”