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January 1, 2013

Arizona in 2012: A year in review



As we usher in 2013 and await the new storylines that will captivate our attention over the next 12 months, it's time to look back on the wild ride that was 2012 for the Arizona football, baseball and men's basketball programs.

There were plenty of highs (many will never forget that College World Series) and lows (some may still be trying to forget Josiah Turner).

Let GOAZCATS.com recap the year that was ...

Baseball

By Danny Passovoy, GOAZCATS.com baseball staff writer

Among the many headlines that encompassed the Arizona program in 2012, one incredible story stands above the rest: the baseball team.

For the fourth time in school history and first time since the Jerry Kindall coaching days, the Wildcats are College World Series champions. However, like many great stories, it was a long journey.

In August 2011, the university signed a deal to play all 2012 home games - and for the next five years - at Hi Corbett Field, about three miles from campus. This move proved instrumental to the Wildcats' success last season.

The combination of a nicer facility, capability to serve beer and excellent play helped Arizona attain the 26th-highest attendance in all of college baseball with an average of 2,628 fans per game.

But questions in the starting rotation behind Kurt Heyer, as well as at second base and catcher with freshmen Trent Gilbert and Riley Moore taking over duties, had many doubting the Wildcats as possible contenders.

Yet, UA jumped out of the gates with a 14-5 record in nonconference play, including consecutive series sweeps against Harvard, UC Davis and Eastern Michigan.

Once Pac-12 Conference play arrived in mid-March, the Wildcats really hit their stride. Arizona went 9-3 in its first four series, the best of which came against then-No. 2-ranked Stanford.

In the first of the three-game series at Hi Corbett, the Cardinal took a 7-4 lead into the ninth inning with potential top-five MLB prospect Mark Appel on the hill. Thanks to some timely hitting by Seth Mejias-Brean and Bobby Brown, the Wildcats scored four runs in the bottom of the ninth to stun the Cardinal. Arizona then took the last two games of the series to complete the sweep.

The competition stayed hot as Arizona welcomed No. 17 UCLA to Hi Corbett less than two weeks later. Heyer pitched his second consecutive complete game as the Wildcats went on to take Game 1. However, the Bruins bounced back with two big victories on the road, trouncing Arizona 15-3 and 6-2, to take the series.

After losing the rubber-match to Oregon with three weeks left in Pac-12 play, the Wildcats turned on the jets. They swept Cal, took the series at USC, and headed into the last three games of the year against Arizona State with a chance to win the program's first Pac-12 championship in more than 20 years.

UA and ASU split the first two games heading into the final game of the season. After the Sun Devils erased a six-run deficit to tie the game at 7, outfielder Johnny Field lined a shot into left field for the walk-off win and a share of the Pac-12 title.

The rest, as they say, is rock n' roll history.

Hi Corbett was selected as one of the country's 16 Regional Championship destinations, Arizona's first time hosting since 1992. UA beat Missouri and Louisville twice by a whopping combined score of 47-10. The Wildcats went on to host an NCAA Super Regional against St. John's, winning both close games over the Red Storm to earn a trip to Omaha, Neb., for the 2012 College World Series.

The Cats played astoundingly well, beating UCLA, Florida State twice and reigning champion South Carolina in the first of a two-game series to come within one game of winning the national championship.

With the Gamecocks threatening in the eighth inning, head coach Andy Lopez turned to freshman closer Mathew Troupe to seal the deal. Troupe struck out shortstop Joey Pankake to end the eighth and got out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth to win the game and the championship for Arizona.

Lopez was named both National Coach of the Year and Pac-12 Coach of the Year while winning his second career national championship, and first since leading Pepperdine in 1992.

Arizona right fielder Robert Refsnyder was named the CWS Most Outstanding Player, shortstop Alex Mejia and Heyer were named second-team All-Americans and five Wildcats received first-team all-conference honors.

Five players essential to the championship run were also taken in the MLB First-Year Player Draft:

Alex Mejia: 4th round, St. Louis Cardinals
Robert Refsnyder: 5th round, New York Yankees
Kurt Heyer: 6th round, St. Louis Cardinals
Seth Mejias-Brean: 8th round, Cincinnati Reds
Joey Rickard: 9th round, Tampa Bay Rays



Men's basketball

Talk about day and night.

The way 2012 began and the last memories of the calendar year turned a forgettable time into a promising springboard into the New Year.

The Wildcats' prized point guard, Josiah Turner, found it difficult to stay out of trouble despite watching one of his teammates, Sidiki Johnson, get kicked off the team less than a month into the season. Once mentioned in the same breath as the words "NBA lottery," Turner never even made it to March as he was disciplined just prior to the Pac-12 tournament.

The issues ran deeper than that, however. A team lacking size could never quite string together enough momentum to hit a stride. Of course, there also is the Kevin Parrom saga that eventually culminated in a season-ending broken foot for the emotionally drained wing.

In the middle of the season, head coach Sean Miller went on an amusing rant and wondered whether his players could get it through their heads that passes should go to others with the same color jersey.



The 'Cats never qualified for the NCAA tournament, falling to Colorado in the league tournament championship game and missing March Madness for the second time in three years under Miller. UA received a spot in the NIT but fizzled out in the first-round home contest against Bucknell.

By the time the Final Four rolled around, Miller was just hoping not to lose his top assistant, James Whitford.

But that's about where the bad news stopped for the Wildcats - and that was nine months ago.

Whitford eventually turned down the Miami (Ohio) job and stayed put. Days later, T.J. McConnell officially announced he was transferring from Duquesne to join the 'Cats and solved the point guard issues. But he would not be eligible until the 2013-14 season, per NCAA transfer rules.

Less than a month later, Miller found his temporary band-aid. Mark Lyons - who was originally recruited to Xavier by Miller and his staff before they departed for Tucson - left with his college degree, one year of eligibility remaining and loads of postseason experience - including three trips to the Sweet 16.

The marriage was a best-case scenario for both parties.

With the addition of the nation's No. 3 recruiting class - Grant Jerrett, Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Gabe York - the Wildcats took off for the Bahamas with a new focus and re-tooled roster.

Arizona entered the new season as slim Pac-12 favorites over UCLA, but the 12-0 start to the season and No. 3 national ranking has Miller's squad firmly atop the league as Pac-12 play is set to begin this week.

A pair of thrilling wins provided the exclamation mark to 2012, but we'll get to that in a bit …

Football

Call it the Year of RichRod.

The football history at Arizona has never been too much to talk about. The way things started in January, it looked like it might be a year before there was anything worth mentioning in the Rich Rodriguez era.

The players reported to spring camp out of shape and, at one point, a frustrated Rodriguez canceled practice altogether. The offense looked choppy at times, but still miles ahead of a defense that lost what little depth it had by the end of camp.

Rodriguez had his own critics in his return to sidelines. A full season removed from a rocky three-year stint at Michigan, Rodriguez had to prove that not only his high-octane offense could work with the rest of the masterminds in the Pac-12, but that Jeff Casteel was the missing piece to his time in Ann Arbor.

The defensive coordinator, who elected to stay at West Virginia the last time RichRod came calling, was one of the final additions to a mostly familiar coaching staff that once had the Mountaineers within one victory of a BCS national championship game appearance.

But Casteel walked into a situation thin at every position, highlighted by the losses of linebacker Brian Wagner and safety Adam Hall. Inexperience and walk-ons made up a bulk of the unit that entered the season.

But as soon as the 'Cats got under the lights at Arizona Stadium, the 2012 season proved to be an assault on scoreboards and record books. Led by quarterback Matt Scott, Rodriguez's offense generated 624 yards - the second-most by a UA team - out of the gates en route to a 24-17 overtime win over Toledo in his debut. The 'Cats then topped that performance with a season-high 59 points in an upset over No. 18 Oklahoma State in Week 2 to move into the Top 25.

Even after a rough three-game stretch and fall to .500 - including a pair of blown leads - Arizona did not come unglued. Back at home, where they would win six games, the Wildcats won back-to-back games capped by a stunning 39-36 win over No. 10 USC.

Following a hiccup at UCLA, the Wildcats then turned to All-American running back Ka'Deem Carey to close the door on 2012. The sophomore collected more than 47 percent of his school-record 1,929 rushing yards and 10 of his 23 rushing scores in the final four games. His career-high 366 yards in the Nov. 10 win over Colorado broke both the school and Pac-12 single-game marks, and his five touchdowns that afternoon tied another school record.

Carey closed 2012 as the nation's rushing leader, but that was only the second-best thing to happen to the program this past season …

Dec. 15

There is no more fitting way to close the book on 2012 than by giving one of the more remarkable days in school history its own chapter.

The New Mexico Bowl was a game few in Tucson wanted any part of because of the scheduling conflicts between a football game, the lone marquee men's basketball home game and graduation back in Tucson.

To start, it looked as if even the Wildcats did not want to be in Albuquerque. A 21-point deficit against Nevada and a bizarre fight on the sidelines between teammates Cody Ippolito and Tevin Hood appeared to setup a buzzkill to what was an otherwise successful turnaround for a team that won just four games in 2011.

But all month the team talked about how important it was to send the seniors off the right way. Down by 17 entering the fourth quarter, Scott and fifth-year place-kicker John Bonano made sure to deliver. Scott tossed three touchdowns in the final quarter of his collegiate career - the last two in the final 46 seconds - while Bonano executed a key onside kick and delivered the game-winning extra point in the 49-48 win.



Athletic director Greg Byrne then hopped on a plane and made it back to Tucson in time for the basketball game against No. 5 Florida.

The 'Cats came out a bit too geeked and trailed by as many as 11 points early. But a late surge in the final 1:20 trimmed the deficit to 32-29 heading into the locker room.

In the second half, it appeared as if the Gators had a backbreaking 3-pointer to answer each serious Wildcats threat. Florida connected on 10 of 18 from beyond the arc and showed the poise of a battle-tested team they were supposed to be.

But the final minute of this contest rivaled the chaos on the gridiron 317 miles away.

Three Florida turnovers and Lyons' game-winning runner helped erase a six-point deficit in 56 seconds.

Ten days later, Nick Johnson's game-saving block in Hawaii against No. 17 San Diego State kept UA's unbeaten record intact on Christmas Day and signaled the end of one helluva year.

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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