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Arizona Baseball Wins One for Wildcats Past, Maps Future


A new banner gets to hang from the lamp posts on National Championship Drive. And Andy Lopez's spirited baseball team is now the model for how other Arizona athletics programs can add more.

The 1986 baseball season was a long time ago, well before most current UA undergrads were even born. It was a time when Jerry Kindall's Bat 'Cats were the gold standard in Tucson.

Two years after the baseball Wildcats won the final of three titles under Kindall, Lute Olson elevated UA basketball to national prominence, a No. 1 ranking, and eventually the Final Four. A song on local radio -- one that has since become a relic of 1980s pop culture cheese a la Teen Wolf or "ALF" -- declared "Tucson, Arizona is a basketball town."

And that's held true for over two decades since.But baseball is the forerunner into a new era.

The 26-year title drought UA snapped with its 4-1 defeat of South Carolina on Monday is also a rejuvenation for Wildcat athletics as a whole.

More than a decade has past since Wildcat basketball last reached a Final Four, the closest UA has come being Elite Eight near-misses in 2005 and 2011. Football enjoyed a brief plateau of modest success but is back in the rebuilding phase so familiar for longtime followers of the program. Even the old reliable in Tucson, Wildcat softball, is on its longest streak without a national championship since winning its first in 1991, and this year missed the Women's College World Series.

Athletic director Greg Byrne's short tenure has been splashy, but no splash is bigger than baseball's championship. UA garnered national headlines, never trailing in Omaha; going perfect through its postseason stretch; employing a balanced style of pitching with old school offense.

Lopez's team didn't just win. UA took down the Pac-12 champion and 2010 national runner-up UCLA. The Wildcats toppled perennial powerhouse Florida State, a team with one of the most celebrated players in the country in James Ramsey, by both inches and miles.

And the coup de grace was defeating the not one-time, but two-time defending national champion in straight sets. Famed professional wrestler Ric Flair once said, "To be The Man, you've got to beat The Man."

UA beat The Man. It took a Wildcat team somewhat ignored late in the regular season a Herculean final push to get where it finished, but there can be no doubt who the best baseball team was come season's end.

In many ways, the Bat 'Cats' title mirrors UA basketball's championship of 1997, when an unrecognized team knocked off three No. 1 seeds and the defending national champion in the finale.

Such resilience is the model UA programs across the spectrum can follow. Wildcat baseball didn't win with flash. There weren't home runs flying out of Hi Corbett Field or TD Ameritrade Park or anywhere else UA was playing. A team-first approach that saw batters with .300-plus averages laying down bunts powered the Wildcats.

Lopez's roster may now have stars, but they weren't four weeks ago. Star power only goes so far, and UA teams past have had veritable constellations. Lopez's first CWS qualifier at UA featured Trevor Crowe and Nick Hundley. Shelley Duncan was an All-American, as was Ben Diggins.

The 2012 title is a reward for these players and others, who made their contributions to Wildcat baseball in the 2 1/2 decades between championships.

Tucson, Arizona is no longer a one-sport town, because baseball has moved the runners for the rest of Wildcat athletics.