A new era in University of Arizona baseball opens tonight – but not in Tucson.
For the first time in eight years, the Wildcats will open the regular season on the road as they prepare to take on Rice University in Houston, TX, for a three-game series with the Owls.
It’s a tough way for Jay Johnson to begin his new job as Arizona’s head baseball coach.
After he’s done in Houston, he points the bus toward Beaumont for a game the next day against Lamar University. And four days later he has to be in California, where his team will play in the Tony Gwynn Classic in San Diego.
The Wildcats have never opened a season with back-to-back road trips, but the new kid on the block is faced with almost two weeks of away games before being able to enjoy the team’s first home game on March 1.
But there will be little time to worry about it since the Cats will be busy playing 13 games in 18 days, beginning with today’s opener.
Rice and Lamar are both Division I teams, but the Owls play in Conference USA and Lamar is a member of the Southland Conference. As such, the level of play should not be what Johnson can expect when he’s faced with his first exposure as a head coach to the challenges of the Pac-12 Conference.
Tonight’s game with Rice, which posted an overall record of 37-22 and 22-8 in conference last season, could have an outside component that would help level the playing field. The Owls drew an average 4,297 fans to last year’s opening series with Texas, which set new stadium records. By comparison, the last game Arizona played, to close out the 2015 schedule, drew just over 2,000 fans.
Granted, that series with Texas was an in-state rivalry situation, but the opportunity to watch a game with a high-profile national contender from the Pac-12 will be incentive for another large turnout.
Rice won two of the three games the two teams played last season and leads the series all-time, 4-3.
Another interesting aspect to this week’s games is the contrast in coaching experience. Johnson is just beginning his first year as head coach at Arizona, and had just three years as a college head coach before that. The two coaches he will be squaring off against at Rice and Lamar have a combined 62 years at their respective schools.
Wayne Graham has spent the last 24 years at Rice and Jim Gilligan has logged 38 years as head coach at Lamar, spending all but five years at the college since taking over in 1973.
Let’s face it, there has to be some kind of edge given to the home teams in this stat.
But it’s still going to boil down to using the talent they each have at their disposal. Arizona returns its most productive power hitter from 2015, junior Bobby Dalbec, who led the conference with 15 homes runs. And the pitching staff has some depth as the Cats will have Nathan Banister, Rio Gomez, and Robby Medel back in rotation.
Johnson has been working at blending in 12 newcomers to this year’s roster, to go with the returners.
However, the defense took a hit with the graduation of Kevin Newman and Scott Kingery, who formed the nucleus of what was generally considered one of the best middle infields in the game last season.
The new coach is expected to get the program back to where it was in 2012 when Andy Lopez led the Wildcats to the national title. Lopez returned a program that has won four titles through the years back to national prominence, but was unable to keep it at a high level in recent years. Last year’s team finished 31-24 and failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year.
Lopez retired last May at age 61 after 14 years leading the Arizona program, and 38-year-old Johnson was plucked from Nevada, where he ran that program for two years and was named the 2015 Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year.
Since being hired last June to be the school’s 16th head baseball coach, Johnson has been living on the recruiting trail, something that Lopez admits was becoming harder to deal with as the years progressed.
Johnson has already begun filling the next two recruiting classes. But the journey begins today with Rice, where the new coach will see what he can do with the talent left in the cupboard, plus a few of his own recruits.
The expectations aren’t too high for this season. His fellow Pac-12 coaches picked the Wildcats in the preseason to finish in ninth place.
But we all know the fans don’t pay much attention to the polls. They’re already looking ahead to the post-season.
And they’re expecting Johnson to take them there.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)