Andy Lopez just added a couple of new coaches to his University of Arizona baseball staff. It brings to mind the old joke about the effort being similar to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The 60-year-old head coach is coming off the worst season he has had during his 13 years directing the Wildcat program, finishing with a 22-33 overall record. That’s the first time in his 25 years as a Division I head coach that one of his teams finished 10 games below the break-even mark.
And, like the Titanic disaster, the upheaval came abruptly. The Cats were national champions just two years ago.
It isn’t helping any that Lopez lost his pitching coach, Shaun Cole, last month when Cole left to become the new director of the 18U national teams for USA Baseball. Cole had been on staff since 2009 and played a key role in Arizona’s 2013 NCAA Championship, for which he was named National Pitching Coach of the Year. The departure left Lopez with just one full-time assistant, Matt Siegel, who signed on just three years ago and serves as the third-base coach, and Michael Lopez, the coach’s son who will return for his second season as an undergraduate assistant, joining his father in working with the pitchers.
Oh yeah, Lopez also underwent open-heart surgery last October, just as fall practice was getting underway.
It was a tough year all around.
But the three-time national Coach of the Year was back in the dugout in time for the mid-February season opener against Kent State. He was there to make sure they won that opener, just as they have each season for the past 20 years.
However, even before the month was over, the skid was starting to take shape. The Cats lost five in a row, and seven out of nine, going into early March.
It didn’t get really sticky until the middle of that month when a couple losses to Washington State were followed by an embarrassing upset to neighboring Grand Canyon University, a small school in west Phoenix just beginning the transition from Division II to D-I play.
But the event that really tested his heart had to be the frustrating – and embarrassing – 14-6 loss to rival Arizona State on March 26. The two teams would play four more times, splitting those games, but the Cats could pull out just four wins in the 12 games they played during May to finish out a season gone horribly wrong.
Lopez publicly accepted responsibility for the disastrous season and vowed to make the adjustments necessary to turn things around for 2015. His two new coaching hires, announced two weeks ago, were one of the steps he has taken.
Brock Ungricht was brought on to replace Cole, but will work with hitters and catchers. Prior to coming to Tucson, he was a volunteer assistant on the staff at Stanford for four years, during which time the Cardinal advanced to three super regionals. He began his college coaching career in 2010 when he was added to the staff at his alma mater, San Diego State, as a volunteer assistant.
Shelley Duncan is a former college player at Arizona, where he was the school’s all-time home-run leader, who will join Lopez’s staff as an undergraduate assistant coach. A graduate of nearby Canyon del Oro High School, Duncan spent seven seasons in Major League Baseball, playing for three different teams. He will work with the outfielders and hitters while he begins coursework to complete his college degree.
Their challenge will be working with a team that last year struggled on offense, lacked a consistently solid defense, fell apart on the road, and had one of the most ineffective pitching staffs in the conference.
Just four batters last year hit above .300, and the team’s combined eight home runs tied for the worst in the Pac-12. The pitching staff had a team ERA of 4.49, which was second to last in the conference. And the 2014 squad won just one conference series on the road.
Keeping his cardiologists advice in mind, the normally fiery and intense Lopez says he’s going to take things a little easier this coming season. Hopefully, he has a coaching staff in place now that will make his life a little easier and help him accomplish that goal.
A return to the College World Series would also likely do wonders for the skipper’s outlook on life.
(Photo: University of Arizona Athletics)