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Arizona baseball: Jay Johnson’s move to Arizona pays off with College World Series appearance

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Things have happened quicker than anyone could have imagined, including Coach Johnson

Jay Johnson
Jason Bartel

For most people, what Jay Johnson has accomplished in his first year at Arizona doesn’t happen in a lifetime.

Maybe the Wildcats didn’t win a Pac-12 Championship. But they’ve done better. They’re going to the College World Series.

"I'm speechless," Johnson said after winning Saturday night’s game 6-5 to advance to Omaha. "I’m so proud of these guys, their teammates that I can’t really put it into words. I thought I knew what toughness was, competitiveness, heart, and then I met them."

"Greatest moment of my life."

When Johnson first took the Arizona job last June, he called it his "dream job", even though he had no ties to the storied program.

There were many reasons he wanted to be at Arizona. Near the top of the list is the fact that last year at Nevada, his Wolf Pack team went 41-15, yet were not rewarded with a place in an NCAA Regional.

Arizona was 38-20 in the regular season this year, were given a two-seed in a Regional and were nowhere near the bubble.

The Wildcats also set a home attendance record this year, drawing over 8,000 fans to the middle game of the ASU series.

"There’s nowhere else on the planet I'd rather be," Johnson said after that game, a line that he reiterated during the in-game interview on Saturday. "The atmosphere; we live for that kind of stuff."

"We really pride ourselves on being good in one-run, two-run games, and we really have in the back half of the season."

Man were those words prescient, given Arizona won two one-run games to advance to the CWS.

You could argue playing in that kind of environment prepared this team for what it has faced in the first two weekends of the NCAA Tournament. Lafayette had over 4,000 strong in a place that doesn't hold that many, and then Starkville had nearly 14,000 people at their games, among the largest on-campus crowds ever for a Super Regional.

"I could tell all week we weren’t going to be overwhelmed by this deal," he explained. "We had a couple good days of training. We pumped up the music as loud as we could to simulate what it was going to be like, and I thought our guys did a good job of handling all of that."

Still though, Johnson could never have dreamed his first season would last this long.

"No," he simply stated when asked if he expected this in year one. "I try to not put any type of limitations on myself or any group of people that I’m around or this team. Right from the start, we were moving pretty fast."

"I got hired the day before the draft last year," he continued. "We had to do some quick relationship building and we were successful with that with the guys that are here."

"We had to build some trust, and that was not easy. You can’t be a good baseball team without confidence, and to be confident you have to have some success."

I think that goes with the fans too. There was a lot of skepticism among the fanbase after Arizona hired an unproven guy who had coached just two years at Nevada.

There’s no reason for skepticism anymore.

"I told my wife there's finally an athletic director that gets it," San Diego Toreros head coach and Johnson’s former boss Rich Hill said of the day Johnson was hired by Arizona. "Here's a guy that's a young dude in college baseball, but obviously Greg Byrne is very wise beyond his years. That was my first thought. I think Greg Byrne really deserves a lot of credit for hiring Jay."

"He's a special guy man," St. Mary’s head coach Eric Valenzuela added. "It's baseball. There's nothing else, no kids, you know? He's just a total grinder of baseball guy, and the fans of Tucson and Arizona should be lucky to have him here."

Arizona is lucky to have him here, and will roll into Omaha with as much confidence as a college baseball team can have. Not a bad way to spend the end of your first season at a school.