The day after the Arizona Wildcats had announced their 2016 signing class, I was invited out to spend the next afternoon with the team for an intrasquad scrimmage. What I saw was a totally different team, a totally different program, and a complete change in culture at Hi Corbett.
There was music blaring over the loud speakers. The scoreboard was turned on for a November intrasquad. Guys were rotating quickly between hitting, running, and fielding stations. The pitchers were getting in a full workout on the field before the scrimmage. There was so much going on that was brand new.
When Arizona hired Jay Johnson away from Nevada, it was a move questioned by many, me included. It seemed that Greg Byrne had gone away from making a big-time hire, and went for the up-and-coming buy with less of a track record. Johnson had only been a head coach for two years, both at Nevada.
But the attitude he's brought to Tucson and the work ethic he has instilled in these guys is maybe exactly what Arizona needed after missing the NCAA Tournament each of the last three seasons.
"I'm comfortable playing under any type of coach," Arizona's star Bobby Dalbec said. "But a lot more guys will be more comfortable playing under (Coach Johnson) and I think that's good. Guys will perform better than they have just because of the positivity and the atmosphere in the clubhouse and the dugout and the field. I think it's gonna be good."
"It didn't take long for this staff to come in and make an impact," added Robby Medel. "They came in right away, established what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it, and as you see, it's an effect. People are lively. Coaches are talking. There's a lot of positive talk out there. The environment's a little bit looser, but I think we get to business the same amount if not more."
"It's a good environment to be around," Medel continued. "The clubhouse is a lot looser. Everybody plays loose, and it's a really good deal that we've got going here, and Coach Johnson and his staff are doing a really good job that everybody has bought in and doing what they need to do to make this go in the right direction."
The loose environment and establishing what the new staff wanted to do was highlighted by the Fall World Series this past weekend, where the players had a draft, and even coached themselves over the course of the three games.
"I would have to say that was the funnest baseball experience we've had as a group," Cody Ramer said after his Team Cats came from behind to take home the title on Sunday. "Being able to compete against each other in such a high-stakes thing, because we knew there was bragging rights along with this, so we just wanted to have as much fun as we could."
"It was awesome," added Sawyer Gieseke. "There was definitely a switch of people wanting to be here every day. It's a lighter atmosphere and there's more life in it and you can tell that from the Fall World Series. It was competitive, and everyone wanted it a little bit more than the other dugout."
The past two seasons, former head coach Andy Lopez would always bring up competitiveness. Would his team compete? Would they find the will to win games at the end? And they didn't. But there's something different about this group of guys under this new staff.
"I think we really found the identity as players this year," Gieseke continued. "Definitely more than other years, and it's all about finding your identity as a team, and I think we've found it already and it's November, so that's awesome."
Making the change in coaching staffs starts with the players buying in, and that has certainly happened so far. We will have to wait and see if that translates to more wins and a postseason bid come May, but right now, there's certainly reason to be optimistic about the 2016 baseball season at Arizona.