Andy Lopez needs only to look at his sons to know that it’s been a while since Arizona played in the College World Series.
The last time the Wildcats visited Omaha was in 2004, and Lopez’s two sons, Michael and David, were batboys for their dad’s team.
Michael Lopez is now a redshirt junior pitcher for the Wildcats, while brother David is a redshirt sophomore infielder.
“And they have full beards, which is something they didn’t have the last time we were there,” said coach Lopez, laughing. “But that’s what makes getting there this year a neat experience for me personally.”
Lopez also appreciates the professional value of Arizona’s return to the CWS. This will be the Wildcats’ 15th appearance but just their second since they won their third national championship in 1986. Prior to that, Arizona had not gone longer than five years between visits to Omaha.
Lopez, too, had been used to more frequent CWS trips. He is one of just three coaches who have guided three schools to Omaha. He got here in 1992 with Pepperdine, which won the national championship.
He brought Florida to Omaha in 1996 and ’98 before getting Arizona here in 2004.
“I was lucky enough to be on a little more consistent run,” he said. “We’ve been close to getting there again but just couldn’t get over the hump. I’m really looking forward to getting back there.”
He started the 2012 season with high hopes that this could be the team that would break the Wildcats’ CWS drought. Most of the key players have been integral parts of the program over the past three years.
“We have a bunch of guys that have been playing every day since they’ve been freshmen,” Lopez said. “We’ve seen the progression with them and, quite frankly, I would have been disappointed had we not gotten there this year.
“This is as good a group of guys as I’ve been around in 30 years of coaching. They’re just a joy to be with and work with.”
Lopez’s veteran group has compiled a 43-17 record that includes a 20-10 mark that earned them a share of the Pac-12 championship. The past five victories have come in succession in the NCAA tournament.
They also have come at home as Arizona’s move to a new stadium allowed the Wildcats to host regional and super-regional competition for the first time since 1992.
“We had been in regional championship games six of the last eight years, and they all came on the road,” Lopez said. “It got to the point where I started thinking that for us to make a real run at Omaha that we’d have to get into the right regional.
“That’s why getting into Hi Corbett was so important. It gave us a chance to host a regional again.”
Hi Corbett Field is the former home of the Colorado Rockies’ spring training operation as well as Tucson’s Class AAA team and USA Baseball. Built in 1927, the 9,500-seat stadium underwent renovations in 1972, ’92, ’97, ’99 and before the Wildcats moved in this season.
“It’s a great place, a big-league facility,” Lopez said. “It might not be a new park but it’s been well-maintained over the years. And it’s ours.”
The Wildcats might reap another benefit of the move to the new stadium when they begin CWS play in spacious TD Ameritrade Park. Hi Corbett’s playing dimensions are monstrous — 366 feet down the left-field line, 349 feet down the right-field line and 392 feet to dead center field.
It takes a drive of 410 feet to leave the park in the left-field power alley and 405 feet in the right-field power alley.
While Arizona’s former home, Sancet Field, was larger than many collegiate stadiums, it was downright cozy compared to the new place. Lopez said that forced an adjustment period for his players.
“There was some frustration,” Lopez said. “Guys were squaring up balls that used to get out of our old park and weren’t getting rewarded. We finally talked to them about how this was our new home and that they were the ones that were going to have to adjust to it.
“The guys started shortening up their strokes and adopting a gap-to-gap mentality rather than trying to hit the ball out of the park. That’s really helped us.”
Arizona scored 61 runs in its five tournament wins. Of the Wildcats’ 81 hits, only two left the park.
“We hear that the park in Omaha plays big, too,” Lopez said. “We should be OK there if we just stick with our same approach.”
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