The Arizona Wildcats struggled mightily last year on the diamond, finishing just 22-33, the worst season in Andy Lopez' head coaching career.
After missing the NCAA Tournament for the second-consecutive year after winning the 2012 National Championship, there were some things that needed to change around the program.
But the biggest change from last year to this year? Coach Lopez' health.
All during last season, coach never admitted that his open heart surgery affected his ability to take control of the team. But now he's willing to accept that.
"First of all, all last year, I had what they call ‘reminders' from the surgery with these nerve endings that just run across your chest," Lopez said last week. "So when I would get a little excited, they would just heighten. I'm not going to lie to you, I was thinking ‘Am I doing damage to myself, am I injuring myself' and they said ‘No, you'll have those for a year or so' which I did."
"I just never responded the way I've always responded for the 37 or 38 years I've been coaching. There was a way I respond to things that I don't like being done, and last year I just kinda ‘hmm, let's figure it out, let's get this worked out' and then the first couple days of fall practice it kinda snapped and I felt normal again. I'm sure the players noticed like ‘Oh, he's healthy again'."
"It's 100 percent different," sophomore Bobby Dalbec confirmed. "I think everyone will agree with that too. Yeah, he's what I thought I was getting into. All the guys were telling me about how last year was a lot different with everything that he was going through. This year I think he's a lot more fired up, and I think he shows it more."
"We definitely need to work harder as a unit," junior pitcher Nathan Bannister added. "From top to bottom, each of us just needs to improve this year and go out and do it."
"There's definitely more intensity and we all need to step up to (Lopez') intensity," Bannister continued. "It's where it needs to be."
With this improved intensity around the program heading into 2015, coach is looking to reestablish the intangibles that maybe left Tucson with the departures of guys like Alex Mejia, Kurt Heyer and Robert Refsnyder.
"For me it's night and day difference," Lopez said. "There's two things when you talk about the intangibles of a program. There's work ethic, mental toughness, staying in the fight, accountability, pace of practice, things like that. And then there's the tangibles. When the lights go on, do they throw strikes? Do they get a big hit? Do they play good defense? Well you don't really know those things til we start, who we kidding? You get ‘em on paper and you go ‘Oohh' and then you see ‘em and you go ‘whoa'. Or you look at ‘em on paper and you go ‘Eww' and then you see ‘em and you go ‘alright'. And I understand that. That's why you play the season. No matter what the preseason polls say, you play the season to see who adapts to the game. For me, the intangibles were so non-existent last year, just unbelievably bad, that that was my sole mission when I came back this year. To get everybody back in-tune. The new guys, even some of the freshmen, the Dalbecs of the world who probably went ‘This isn't what I've heard' and now they'd probably tell ya ‘Yeah, the stories are true'. So my goal was to get the intangibles back, and I really feel like the intangibles are lining up exactly how I want them. Now will they tangibly be able to play? That's what we need to find out. But the intangibles, those things are coming back."
"Things have gotta change. If you're not going to do it, I'll do it for you. But if the team doesn't want to do it, I feel good again, so I'll do it. I didn't feel good last year, and a lot of times, I just didn't feel good. Didn't feel like how I've felt for 37, 38 years of coaching. And I'm raring to go this year. I don't play but like I tell guys all the time, there's some things we want done here from a leadership standpoint, and if you can do it, you can ask the Alex Mejias, the Refsnyders, the Rickards that carried me to a World Series. I just watched them perform, do what they were supposed to do, and you lend some guiding hands, but your best teams are the ones that want it as bad if not more than you do. You can set some goals, but they want it more, if not more than you do, so that's kind of what you strive for. But as I've said before, I've had teams that you kind of have to pull along til they got the hint of it. Last year I didn't think I could pull anything. Just didn't feel very good. A lot of denial, but now that I'm at it again, I go ‘I didn't feel very good'. But live and learn."
You could feel the improvement in coach's health just by being around him for the half hour or so, and it's obvious that everyone on the team is ready to get this thing fired back up again after such a rough 2014.