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January 17, 2013

Defending CWS champion Wildcats back at work

In less than a month, the University of Arizona baseball team will open its 2013 title defense with a home series against Coppin State.

This could only mean one thing: Baseball season is officially upon us.

Now, we all know the story of what transpired last year, but for those of you who might have a foggy memory, here's a quick reminder.

The Wildcats earned a share of the Pac-12 Conference championship for the first time in 20 years, hosted their first Regional since 1992, swept their way through the playoffs and College World Series and won their first national championship since 1986. Head coach Andy Lopez was named National Coach of the Year, Shaun Cole was named Pitching Coach of the Year, hitting coach Matt Siegel was named as one of 10 "Rising Assistants" by PerfectGame.com and six players, including Pac-12 Player of the Year Alex Mejia, were named to the all-conference team.

However, following their historic run in Omaha, Lopez headed back home and began focusing on the upcoming season almost immediately.

"Honestly 48 hours or so, three days later maybe [I was] back trying to make recruiting calls again, trying to make sure who's going to sign and who's not going to sign," Lopez said before practice on Wednesday. "Moments show up, you get back the excitement, the euphoria, but about two days afterwards you are back in the realm of recruiting, where are we going to recruit, who are going to see and make sure who's going to sign, where's our depth, who's coming back, and so on."

Lopez likes his players to exemplify this same work ethic on the field.

"The biggest thing is their effort, I want them to be proud of their effort," he continued. "Only you know if you've given your absolute best today at practice and that means everyday at practice. That carries over into the game settings. The ability to execute, the ability to throw strikes and basic fundamentals of the game we push very hard and we hope that it leads to an intrinsic pride that you know what, 'I've given my best, worked my hardest in the weight room, on the field and I can execute, so let's play.'"

Through motivation and constant demand from his players, Lopez has helped the Wildcats reach the postseason in eight of the last 10 seasons, including three consecutive NCAA Regional appearances.

Lopez demands his players to bring game-speed intensity everyday to practice. This is especially apparent during bullpen sessions, batting practice and defensive drills. Execution is emphasized throughout as he constantly tells his players, "It is never a gamble if you can execute."

One of the players who has benefited from playing under Lopez is junior pitcher Konner Wade, who was 11-3 with a 3.96 ERA last year.

"Oh man, I mean it's as game-like as you can get in the bullpen," Wade said. "My freshman year, it was an eye-opening experience to have a bullpen with him, but now I am used to it. But it's intense, he's in your ear the whole time, trying to make it as game-like as possible."

Yet, it is through these intense bullpen sessions and preseason workouts that the Wildcats have started to see leaders emerge in the clubhouse, such as junior outfielder Johnny Field.

"Last year's core group of juniors and seniors were unbelievable. I mean, that's the main reason we did what we did last year," Field said. "There were so many guys on the team that were leaders and all had the common goal in mind to get to Omaha and win a championship. So this year I know I am a junior, there's a couple other older guys on the team like Wade, (Stephen) Manthei and (Brandon) Dixon, and I think it's a pretty good older group that nothing is going to change this year.

"The goal is still to get back to Omaha and win a national championship. There are a lot of freshmen on the team, but I think it's a good group of guys and scrappy players, and I believe we will be a competitive team again this year."

The preseason No. 18 Wildcats bring a lot of new faces to the plate in 2013. Yet one thing will always remain the same in Tucson: Anything less than a trip to Omaha is unacceptable.

Danny PassovoyDanny Passovoy
GOAZCATS.com Baseball Staff Writer

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