Nov. 29, 2012
The defending national champion Arizona baseball team recently completed its six-week fall practice season. Head coach Andy Lopez sat down for a Q&A to discuss his club's development as the Wildcats look to defend their conference and national championships during the upcoming 2013 season. Arizona opens its spring slate on Friday, Feb. 15, against Coppin State. For ticket information, click here.
What were the goals of the team heading into the fall practices?
"I think the biggest thing we tried to do was get the new guys acclimated with the speed of practice, the intensity of practice, the demands of practice, and the demands of the program. We do not ask anything abnormal of our athletes, but there are things like never walking on the field, not picking up a ball with your glove but always with your bare hand, and so on. A lot of those things are little, but we have always believed that little things lead to major things. I thought the new guys did a marvelous job of getting acclimated to those things.
The other thing was trying to establish who was going to replace our five key positions guys. Who is going to take Alex Mejia's position, or Seth Mejias-Brean, Joey Rickard, Robert Refsnyder or Bobby Brown's spots? I don't think we're completely clean on all of those positions right now, but we do know we have some options at all those spots. Brandon Dixon looks like he is going to be our third baseman. Kevin Newmanlooks like he is going to be our shortstop. We may not be five-for-five filling those spots for certain, but I feel good where we are at today.
We also wanted to see if some of the senior pitchers would come back more seasoned, more comfortable. The great news is Nick Cunningham, Tyler Hale, Stephen Manthei and Augey Bill had outstanding fall seasons. So we feel really good about that.
And lastly, we wanted to stay injury free, which, knock on wood, we were able to do that as well."
How do you make up for the loss of some of your key contributors in last year's lineup?
"If you would have told me you are going to win a national championship but you are losing five key guys and you will replace them all with freshmen, I would say how are we going to do that? Well, what's going to happen is the players coming back from last year's team need to make a major leap in leadership and execution and performance. The execution and performance standpoints - we'll find out in a few months, right? I like what they did in the fall, but we'll really find out in the spring. But from the intangibles and leadership, I am really secure right now with this group."
Which players embraced the new leadership roles?
"I don't know if you will ever replace the intangible things Alex Mejia brought to the program. I really don't think we can truly replace Alex Mejia - he's a once or twice a lifetime player for a coach. You don't get to coach players like Alex Mejia or David Eckstein very often. But, I really like the attitudes of Konner Wade, Johnny Field and Brandon Dixon. Those guys, and the Riley Moore's, David Lopez's and Joseph Maggi's all did a great job this fall.
As coaches, we kind of get hands-off in the fall on purpose to see if the older guys can handle leadership. I make the statement to our team all the time "this isn't my program, it's your program. I am coaching you, but whatever you want to accomplish this year, you are probably going to take me along for that ride. Hopefully I won't make a lot of bad decisions and alter that ride, but I'll try to make good decisions." The line I use with them is, "practices belong to me and my staff, games belong to you."
The guys that played a lot last year did a great job coming back this year and showing the new guys what this program is about. I was able to see that audibly and visually when they would pull a guy aside and say "we don't do it that way, we do it this way." Will it be like Alex Mejia? Probably not. But it doesn't have to be. As long as they are consistent in doing the things we do in this program, and I have seen them do exactly that, we will be in good shape. I think they did a great job of that this fall."
How is the pitching staff taking shape?
"Coming in we knew what we had in Konner Wade and James Farris, who were the Saturday and Sunday guys last year. In the fall, Farris pitched as well as Wade. As we speak, we have a Friday night guy for Friday and a Friday night guy for Saturday. Farris was that good this fall.
We have a lot of candidates for the third spot. Stephen Manthei, Tyler Hale, Tyler Crawford, Kevin Elder, Cody Moffet and Nathan Bannister all have told me they want that role. And those are the guys I would want competing for that for that spot - a few older guys and a few younger guys. At the back end, Mathew Troupe wants to close. Nick Cunningham has pitched really well, and wants to pitch in that role. We're comfortable with those guys at that back end, and whoever does not win the Sunday spot obviously goes into the mix for the seventh-eighth inning set-up roles."
Is this year's pitching staff deeper than last year's?
"There's a heck of a lot more depth. In fact, there's so much depth, I remind them that in professional baseball a starter goes five, six innings and the role of some guys is to go in and get three outs or six outs to bridge to the closer. Last year, we had to have Kurt Heyer pitch eight or nine innings on Friday. Konner sometimes had to do it on Saturday, too. This year, I don't think we're going to need that every week. If Konner or James do go nine innings once in a while, that's great and we will take it, but I really believe we're going to have a lot of depth.
I mentioned the four seniors that had great fall seasons. That was what I was most curious about coming into this fall. And to their credit, those four guys came back and stepped up. They did a marvelous job, which added to our depth with some pretty good freshmen, too."
What are you looking for out of your catchers?
"Riley Moore has an outstanding fall. My biggest goal with Riley is I don't want him catching every day this year. Our goal is to get our backup guys - Jordan Berger and David Real- ready to play defensively so we can give Riley some days off. He can play designated hitter or even first base if we really need another left-handed bat on days he is not behind the plate. Berger swings it well, and Real is a very solid defensive player. So we've got some capable guys that we want to keep developing."
What does the competition look like at the various infield positions?
"Sam Parris and Ryan Koziol have played at first base, and both are competing very hard. It could very well be a case where they both play, and it's nice that one is a left-handed bat (Koziol) and one is a right-handed bat (Parris). That gives us a lot of versatility. Both have been very steady for us defensively, and we feel good with those guys there.
Trent Gilbert is back at second base but has some competition with David Lopez and Cody Ramer. At shortstop, you have Kevin Newman and Gilbert. Kevin was very solid defensively, and hit better than maybe we anticipated, which was a nice thing. But we have told him all fall, we just need you to play sound defense and he did a marvelous job at that.
At third base, Brandon Dixon has been outstanding. Jackson Willeford can go over, so, too, can Ramer or Koziol. So there is a lot of completion and depth at all of the spots, which we probably didn't have this time a year ago."
How is the outfield shaping up?
"Johnny Field and Joseph Maggi are two guys I would be shocked if they are not in the lineup in some capacity. We're not exactly sure where Johnny will end up, but he can play centerfield if we need him to. There's a pretty good competition going on between Scott Kingery, who hit .428 in the fall, and Tyler Parmenter, who hit .386 and played well this fall. Those four guys will battle for outfield playing time, but we can also play Jackson Willeford or Cody Ramerin the outfield, too, if we need them in the lineup."
Are there physical differences between this year's team and last year's club?
We will be a faster, more versatile team. Our team speed is much improved. We have a lot of guys that can play catch at different positions. There are a lot of interchangeable parts: Ramer, Willeford, Koziol, Dixon, Gilbert, Kingery, Newman - that's seven guys that can all play multiple positions. Kingery could play centerfield tomorrow. And he could come in and play shortstop.
Besides the versatility, we may be a little different offensively. We probably will not have as much power in our lineup, but we can probably match it if Dixon and Parris can show up consistently. If they do show up, we definitely will have as much power and if they don't then we certainly won't have as much power. But our focus as a team will be to not strike out. We're pretty athletic, so let's put the ball in play and see if the other team can play a little defense."
What is your biggest concern heading into the 2013 season?
"The biggest concern for me is: are the old guys going to put too much expectation on themselves? And are the young guys going to get old fast? We need to do a good job in both areas. We need to play good baseball and let the results take care of themselves. I know we're the defending national champions - I've been in this position before - it's always going to be in their head. We want to do a good job of enjoying it, but the goal doesn't change: play good baseball. I think we can play good baseball. But to do so, we don't need the old guys trying to do too much. At the same time, the young guys need to get old quickly. There's going to be four or five freshmen that we will need to play old."