How many times have you turned on Selection Sunday for the NCAA basketball tournament and heard a coach complain about their path being treacherous?
Kentucky’s John Calipari, for one, is known for it.
“I didn’t see all of it,” Calipari told reporters of the NCAA Selection Show in 2017, “but you guys … is ours like the toughest again? Like, by far? Is anyone in here surprised? We’re not playing on Thursday, right? Because we just got done playing today (Sunday). We’re playing on Thursday? Oh, but we’re close?”
“Honestly, all I wanna do is make everybody that cares about this program, this university, from this town proud.”
Arizona coach Jay Johnson took some time to reflect on leading the Wildcats to a second appearance at the College World Series during his tenure at UA. pic.twitter.com/felVh3Ke9Z
— Matt Moreno (@MattGOAZCATS) June 14, 2021
Is it any wonder why Kentucky underperforms in the NCAA tournament with its array of talent and Calipari has only one national title to show for all of those 5-star recruits?
Arizona baseball coach Jay Johnson is built a different way.
He claims he wanted perennial SEC power Ole Miss to be a potential Super Regional opponent. He said he relishes the opportunity for his lineup — which he boasts as the best in Pac-12 history — to face Vanderbilt and its two elite pitchers — Jack Leiter and Kumar Rocker.
“I told the players on Selection Sunday, there’s no other way I’d have it,” Johnson said of the potential College World Series matchup with the Commodores. “I mean, this is meant to be for this team and we’re really, really excited. We know what they are and how quality they are, and all those types of things, so what a better way to start the College World Series than that?”
Arizona (45-16) will have that chance to play Vanderbilt (45-15) when the College World Series starts Saturday at Omaha, Neb.
The Wildcats overpowered Ole Miss (45-22) with a 16-3 win Sunday in which they posted 20 hits, 10 of them for extra bases.
“When I saw the bracket come out, I wanted them (Ole Miss) to win their side (in the Oxford Regional),” Johnson said. “I know that sounds crazy because of how good their team is, and last night (Saturday’s 12-3 loss to the Rebels) in the middle of the game, I’m going like, ‘Wow, be careful what you wish for.’
“But it totally validates exactly (his vision of his program). To make it to the College World Series two times in the last five chances in this day and age is remarkable and something that I’m very proud right now. I’m very proud of the players. I’m very proud of the people in our organization. I’m very proud of how they handle situations of significance and magnitude, whatever you want to call it. I think it just it shows character. It’s one thing to say you want to go do something. It’s an entirely different thing to go do it every day for a long period of time. These guys have done that.”
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 14, 2021
Branden Boissiere, who went an unthinkable 10-for-15 in the Super Regional, including a 4-for-6 performance with five RBIs on Sunday, carries Johnson’s mantra of wanting to play the best.
“I’m up to play any team,” he said. “I feel like with our team, we’re really good with both our pitching staff and our hitting. I feel like it’s elite. I feel like we can compete with anyone. Finally, this year we’re starting to get a lot of recognition for everything that we’re doing. I’m ready for the challenge ahead.”
Johnson: Arizona has “best offense in Pac-12 history”
Johnson described Arizona’s 20 hits against Ole Miss as an “assault of quality at-bats.”
There’s no better way of putting how Arizona’s lineup, especially the top six batters in the lineup performed overall against Ole Miss.
- Donta’ Williams, 8 for 14, six runs, six RBIs, two HRs, two doubles
- Jacob Berry, 5 for 13, four runs, six RBIs, two HRs, one double
- Branden Boissiere, 10 for 15, four runs, five RBIs, three doubles
- Tony Bullard, 5 for 13, three runs, four RBIs, one HR, one triple
- Kobe Kato, 4 for 11, three runs, three RBIs, two doubles
- Ryan Holgate, 5 for 12, one run, three RBIs, one HR, one double
They went a combined 37 for 78 (.474) with 21 runs, 27 RBIs, six home runs, a triple and nine doubles.
“I think this is the best offense in Pac-12 history,” Johnson said. “And I’m not a historian, so I can’t validate that, but if there’s one that’s equal, I’d like to see what that looks like.”
The Wildcats are certainly one of the best lineups in conference history.
Arizona has a team batting average of .329, which is close to the conference record of .356 posted by ASU in 1981 and 1999.
The 1981 team with Alvin Davis, Kevin Romine, Stan Holmes, Lemmie Miller, Ricky Nelson and Mike Sodders was coached by Jim Brock to the College World Series championship with a 55-13 record. Holmes was named the College World Series MVP, Davis was an All-Pac-10 pick who went on to play nine years in the majors with the Seattle Mariners and Anaheim Angels and Romine and Sodders were first-team All-Americans. Sodders was the Baseball America college baseball player of the year.
Willie Bloomquist, recently hired by ASU to be its head coach, was the Pac-10 Player of the Year in 1999 when he produced 100 hits while batting .394. He was a first-team All-American. Andrew Beinbrink who batted .402 with 14 home runs and 85 RBIs, was also in that lineup along with Mark Ernster (who batted .439). Four other regulars batted above .350.
Arizona’s 1993 lineup that featured the likes of George Arias, Robbie Moen, Jason Thompson, John Tejcek, Willie Morales, and Todd Landry can stake the claim for being the best. That team holds the Wildcats’ records in batting average (.343) and home runs (115).
Arizona’s CWS team formulated right after Johnson’s hire
Arizona got so much more than Johnson when athletic director Greg Byrne hired him on June 8, 2015, to replace the retired Andy Lopez.
The Wildcats also indirectly received pitcher Preston Price and Bullard and Williams that day as well.
“You might have the date that I was hired, but that day, the day I got the job, Preston Price committed Arizona,” Johnson said. “He was the first one and he was on the mound tonight.
“Donta Williams, Tony Bullard, they visited on the same day (that summer). It was really hot in June or early July of 2015. It spanned all the way to this summer (with Texas Tech transfer Tanner O’Tremba and Southwestern University transfer Austin Smith entering the program).”
Price was entering his senior year at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego at the time. Williams was going to be a junior at Legacy High School and Las Vegas and Bullard a sophomore at JW North High School in Riverside, Calif.
Johnson’s proudest addition might be Kato, who was not highly recruited out of Aiea (Hawaii) High School in 2018.
“I look at somebody like Kobe Kato — I love that kid like he’s my son because I didn’t keep him on the roster the first year. I just basically allowed him to be in the program,” Johnson said. “And then the next year, he made the team but didn’t travel all the time. And then last year, he was kind of on his way a little bit.
“I think if 2020 would have continued (without the cancelation because of COVID-19), this wouldn’t be a surprised. He would have taken on a bigger role, and now he’s one of the best second basemen in the country.”
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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