We all have questions.
Over the last year or so, the University of Arizona athletics program had more than most.
Was Jedd Fisch even a passable choice for football? How would Tommy Lloyd fare as a head coach after two decades as an assistant? Chip Hale certainly loves Arizona, but was he the right man to helm the baseball program? And finally, how would Caitlin Lowe fare replacing a legend?
Early returns for all are promising, though it is still early to call the matters settled and there are still things we need to learn. Let’s break it down.
You would be hard pressed to find a coach with a better optimism-to-wins ratio. Though the coach’s first season featured just one victory and a loss to Northern Arizona, what he and his staff have accomplished in the weeks and months since the final game has been nothing short of remarkable.
A top-25 recruiting class, the addition of impact transfers and the retention of the bulk of the roster in an era where other programs have hemorrhaged talent all speak well of the coach’s ability to get things turned around.
However, until the wins start coming it will be fair to question if they ever will. No one should be expecting greatness this coming season, but with an improved roster and additional time in the system it is absolutely fair to anticipate noticeable improvement.
Really, what more could be said about the former Gonzaga assistant? He pulled key players back out of the transfer portal, added a couple transfers and led the Wildcats to an historic season that saw them finish with 33 wins along with a conference title, conference tournament title and Number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. Lloyd was named Coach of the Year by the Pac-12, Associated Press, NABC and USBWA.
All of that happened because the players thrived in Lloyd’s free-flowing offense. His ability to get the team to buy in and learn the concepts so quickly is a testament to his coaching acumen, and by all accounts he is everything Arizona could have hoped for—and more—in replacing Sean Miller.
Lloyd is proving to be an adept recruiter, too, both stateside and abroad. The recent addition of Henri Veesaar appears to be quite the coup, and Arizona is likely not yet done adding to the roster. Add in the 2023 class, which already features a pair of top American prospects, and it’s clear Lloyd can acquire talent from all parts of the globe.
At this point, the only things Lloyd has left to prove are whether or not he can not only win with a roster purely of his making, but win at a level Arizona has not seen in more than 20 years.
Losing Jay Johnson to LSU was a blow, and it was fair to question whether or not Hale was really the best Arizona could do. The Wildcats have one of the better programs in the country, and a first-time college coach is always a risk, no matter how beloved they are.
Now in his first postseason, Hale has proven to be ... ummm ... fine. The Cats got off to a hot start only to hit a bit of a lull in the middle of the season. That inconsistency carried with them the rest of the way, putting them closer to the NCAA Tournament bubble than anyone would like.
Though, perhaps Arizona’s record doesn’t tell the entire story. Hale’s squad performed admirably in the Pac-12 Tournament and finished with 11 victories over top-50 RPI opponents, seven of which came against teams in the top 25. Arizona ranks 39th, and statistically the Wildcats have put together a solid season both at the plate and on the mound. Individual performances from the likes of Daniel Susac, Chase Davis (hopefully his shoulder injury isn’t serious), Tanner O’Tremba, Garrett Irvin, Quinn Flanagan and others should provide confidence in the staff’s ability to coach players up.
Further, the season is not even over yet. Assuming it makes the NCAA Tournament, Arizona will not be a favorite nor will the Cats be expected to go far. But Hale’s job, at least this season, was to not mess things up while (hopefully) building for the long haul. On the first point he has done well, and on the second, well, recruiting seems to be going well but with baseball it’s not always easy to tell.
Which leads us to the biggest question of Hale, and that’s whether or not a coach whose playing days ended in the late-90s and has never before been a college coach can recruit at a high enough level to keep Arizona baseball among the best in the nation.
It’s not unfair to say of all the new coaches (of the main sports) Arizona hired, Lowe had the toughest job. She did not face a rebuilding project like Fisch nor did she step into a program with possible sanctions on the way as Lloyd did. No, she had to take over for a legend, Mike Candrea.
It is often said that it is better to follow the coach who followed the legend, but Lowe took the challenge head-on and has put together a season that, similar to Hale, has not been great but has room to improve this very season. Her squad did not put together a good conference season, but overall did enough to reach the postseason for the 35th consecutive season.
So in that regard Lowe was 1 for 1, accomplishing the only reasonable goal set out before the season.
But she accomplished even more, guiding this team back to the Women’s College World Series. Was it the expectation? Not this year. But her ability to get her team to play some of its best ball when it matters most is, well, something the best coaches are able to do.
Anything after this would be gravy and hey, they’ve made it this far so why not win a few more games, right?
That’s not to say it is a total surprise and the Cats are plucky underdogs. Arizona is a softball institution, and this is not a roster lacking talent. In fact, there have been some excellent individual seasons—many, actually—especially at the dish. Allie Skaggs has been great, while Jasmine Perezchica, Izzy Pacho and Carlie Sculpin have led a lineup that ranked first in the Pac-12 in batting average, second in slugging percentage, first in hits, third in runs scored and second in runs batted in. Arizona’s 92 home runs were also second in the conference, while its 818 total bases were more than anyone else amassed.
Looking at the totality, things could be plenty worse. Arizona was in an interesting spot with new coaches in some of its most important sports, and while none have fully solidified themselves as capable of getting their respective programs to where they want to go, each has shown enough to feel good about them getting more time to try.