Although Arizona has never played Vanderbilt in baseball, individuals within the programs know each other well.
Arizona coach Jay Johnson wanted Vandy shortstop Carter Young of Selah, Wash., so badly entering Young’s senior year of 2018-19 that he counted the amount of times he walked around his pool while on the phone with him trying to get a definitive answer that he would join the Wildcats.
“Carter Young is a great player, another West Coast guy, another guy we recruited really hard,” Johnson said in Friday’s press conference. “A funny story. At the house I used to rent, we had a small pool in the backyard. I stayed on the phone with him and walked around the pool for 80 laps, and I couldn’t get him to say yes.
“So it will be fun seeing him on the field.”
The word “fun” can be viewed in different ways here — fun as in it is the College World Series or fun sarcastically that this talent Johnson tried to sway to Arizona is on the opposite side in college baseball’s grandest stage.
The No. 5 Wildcats (45-16) start their 18th trip to the College World Series on Saturday at 4 p.m. at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., against No. 4 Vanderbilt (45-15). ESPN will broadcast live with Karl Ravech, Kyle Peterson, Eduardo Perez and Kris Budden calling the action.
Brian Jeffries, the Voice of the Wildcats on KCUB 1290-AM, will broadcast his fourth College World Series, including the 2012 championship.
Young is batting .266 with a team-high 75 strikeouts but he has pop in his bat with a team-best 15 home runs to go with 49 RBIs.
Johnson also wanted Ole Miss shortstop Jacob Gonzalez out of Gardena, Calif. Gonzalez was the Rebels’ best player last weekend at Hi Corbett Field during the Tucson Super Regional.
Vandy also has five players from California — catcher CJ Rodriguez of Newport Beach, utility player Spencer Jones of Encinitas, right-handed pitcher Sam Hliboki of Los Angeles, left-hander Brett Hansen of Pleasanton and infielder Jayson Gonzalez of Covina.
“I think it’s a really good job of evaluating,” said Johnson, who added some players were under the radar while in high school. “You could tell they were really, really good players, but maybe they weren’t listed at the top of recruiting rankings or player rankings or all those types of things.
“I tip my hat in this case to Vanderbilt of doing a good job recruiting some guys out here (on the West Coast).”
Arizona center fielder Donta’ Williams is a former teammate of Jayson Gonzalez, a senior with the Commodores, when they were part of the USA Baseball 17U Team in 2015.
“We’ve known each other for a couple years now,” Williams said. “It’s always fun to play against guys you grew up with playing, guys you haven’t seen in a long time, especially the guys on the East Coast you don’t really see much.
“It’s definitely cool. (From) childhood, seeing people be successful is always something you root for. I mean, you get out there, say, ‘What’s up?’ Smiles and everything. But right when the first pitch goes, it’s all competitiveness. They’re not friends at that point.”
Enrique Bradfield Jr., of Hialeah, Fla., is another Vanderbilt player Arizona tried to recruit when he participated in a scouting tournament in the Phoenix area while he was in high school.
Bradfield, a center fielder who was the SEC Freshman of the Year, has 46 stolen bases in 52 attempts this season and is batting .356 with 65 of his 77 hits landing for singles. He also leads the team with 42 walks. He gets on base and wreaks havoc.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen 46 on a stat sheet,” Johnson said with a laugh. “Enrique is a great player. We actually recruited him a little bit. He came out to a tournament in Arizona a couple years ago. They use his skill set really well, whether it’s with the bunting game, the strike zone discipline, to obviously steal bases.
“He will run at any time, no outs, no strikes, two outs, two strikes, and everything in between. We’re going to have to do a good job. Obviously the best thing you can do is keep him off base. That will be the focus. If we can do that, then we’re not threatened by the running game with him.”
What was said about Arizona-Vanderbilt matchup:
— Likely Vanderbilt starter Kumar Rocker. a projected high draft pick in July who is 13-3 with a 2.46 ERA with 155 strikeouts and 36 walks: “Just in general you hear a lot about Arizona’s offense (team batting average of .329 and leading the country in runs (510), hits (526), doubles (138) and triples (29)). So you know it’s a good offense, a hit-first offense. As a pitcher in my position, I go out there and play my game regardless. That’s what I’m going to do when it comes the time.”
— Rocker, the 2019 CWS Most Outstanding Player, on Vandy being the defending CWS champions (the event was canceled last year due to COVID-19) and being able to handle being on the grand stage: “Emotion comes when you’re young – this is a young group. We’re going to play how we want to play. With this team, the emotion, once these kids get a grasp on that and move forward and play with it? I think the best version of themselves is going to come out.”
— Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin on matching up with Arizona (his pitching strengths with Arizona’s potent lineup): “We just have to be able to slow them down enough. We have to get comfortable in the batter’s box in order to get some base runners and move runners. I think it’s as simple as that.”
— Arizona first baseman Branden Boissiere on being mentally prepared for his first College World Series game: “What our coaches told us was just to have fun. When we’re not playing baseball, enjoy our time here, but when we’re on the field, it’s our time to be focused, do the task at hand. I think we’ve done a really good job of separating that. When we’re practicing, we’re where our feet are, we’re present with everything we do. I feel like we’ve done a really good job separating the having-fun part here in Omaha and the serious part, which is on the baseball field.”
— Johnson on his pitching situation with starters Chase Silseth and Garrett Irvin, who have mixed results as of late: “Well, we’re in Omaha. We’re not in Omaha without the starting pitchers doing what they’ve done to this point in the season. It’s no secret Garrett didn’t have a great outing last week. Chase has had a couple bumps here lately. Their best quality is what’s inside them in terms of their competitiveness, their drive, their winning-type quality where they found a way when they haven’t always been their best. I don’t think either of those guys or any of our pitchers, like this will be too much for them. I think this team has responded to everything thrown at them. Really looking forward to the guys that take the mound for our team and how they — I won’t call it rise to the occasion — but how they handle themselves in this environment because we have a lot of trust in them.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District