Coach Jay Johnson and the Arizona baseball players are sick of talking about the 2016 season. That was that team, this is this team.
“New year, new team,” senior pitcher JC Cloney said Friday night following the team’s first practice at Hi Corbett Field. “We have 16 new guys. A lot of them weren’t there last year, so as much as you want to bring anything [from 2016], there’s very few that can.”
The freshman- and transfer-stacked roster boasts a talented look for Johnson, who consistently has spoken on the maturity of his young players. So, will the Wildcats, after making a thrilling run to the championship series of the College World Series, cut down on the dugout celebrations and shenanigans that made them social media icons in 2016?
“I think it’s great,” Johnson said of the dugout antics.
“I want them to want to be here more than any place on the planet, and I think if they can enjoy being in the moment and competing together, and that helps them relax, if you will, then it’s a positive. I don’t know what they have in store [for this season], nor will I ask.”
With eight freshmen, some of the returning players will have to take on leadership roles to help mold this team’s personality.
“We knew, losing a lot of key seniors last year, that this year people have to step up,” junior outfielder Jared Oliva said. “It’s been real good for me, JJ (Matijevic), Cal (Stevenson), these transfers stepping in and really just moving into this leadership thing.”
In order to implement this “leadership thing,” Oliva trusts the advice Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona gave the Wildcats in a recent visit.
“He said respect your teammates, respect your coaches, respect the way the games played and never back down from a challenge,” Oliva said. “Everything’s to help the team, it’s not individual.”
However, the maturity of the freshmen will limit the need for overbearing leadership contributions from Oliva and others.
“A lot of these freshmen, they don’t play like freshmen, so that’s a good thing. We don’t have to whip them into shape too much,” Oliva said. “This is a talented group of individuals. Everyone knows what they need to do to help the team succeed.”
The season begins in three weeks against Eastern Kentucky on Feb. 17, but Johnson is still far from discovering the perfect lineup as he learns more about the newcomers.
“We’re replacing a lot of really talented dudes that had special years and you don’t look for one guy to replace one guy,” Johnson said.
“It’s kinda the whole village in their improvement and their development, but I think if there’s one thing I’m excited about, and I think today showed, that was the number of guys that can make a positive contribution. Now we can work to figure out what the right combination looks like.”
Johnson might not establish a consistent lineup until the second or third series of the season — or much later — but that doesn’t diminish the likelihood of an exciting start to the new year of Wildcat baseball.
Whichever way the team chemistry plays out, Cloney can assure fans one thing: “It’s gonna be really fun to see.”