After sweating out the NCAA Tournament selection show in 2018 and 2019, only to turn off the TV in disappointment, there was no stress visible on the faces of Arizona’s players or coaches when their name was called.
The Wildcats already knew they were in the field, having earned an automatic bid by winning the Pac-12 title, and on Sunday they learned they’d be hosting games at Hi Corbett Field for the first time since 2012. The only drama left for Monday morning was in regards to seeding, and whether the UA had earned the right to host Super Regionals as one of the top eight seeds.
Arizona is the No. 5 overall seed, the first time in program history it has been in the top 8. That means that if the Wildcats end up making their first trip to the College World Series in Omaha since 2016, they will never have to leave Tucson to get there.
“To have postseason baseball at Hi Corbett, being in that position is a tremendous accomplishment, I think we’re more than deserving of that number and that seed,” coach Jay Johnson said. “It’s validation of a job well done for the season. Home field advantage in college baseball is one of the most underrated things. I take a lot of pride in how we play at Hi Corbett Field, I know our players do as well.
“Now it’s just about the play, it’s about the preparation. That’s my sweet spot, my comfort zone, mine and my staff’s strength. We want to run this thing as hard and as far as we possibly can.”
Arizona opens NCAA play at 7 p.m. PT Friday against Grand Canyon, a familiar foe that seemed destined to be the Wildcats’ first opponent. Johnson said he “knew” the Antelopes, against whom the Wildcats split a pair of Tuesday games this season, were going to be who his team faced and that allowed him to begin preparing for the WAC regular-season and conference tournament champs on Sunday.
“It obviously will grab our players’ attention, they’ll be respected,” Johnson said of Grand Canyon, which is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance. “And we know we’ll need to put in a good week of preparation. We played them May 4, but that feels like a really long time ago to me. At least in terms of my preparation I’m going to reboot and completely start over.”
There’s actually familiarity with all three Tucson Regional opponents. Oklahoma State and UC Santa Barbara, who meet at 1 p.m. PT, were both part of the CWS field in 2016 when Arizona made the championship series. To get there the Wildcats had to beat UCSB once and OSU twice, and both teams are still coached by the same men from five years ago.
“It’s not a surprise that these are the guys that we’re facing off against and all these programs are really successful, and that bleeds into how their teams play,” Johnson said.
Of the four teams in the Tucson Regional, Arizona probably had the least to play for this past weekend since it was locked into the tourney as the Pac-12 champs. Grand Canyon and Oklahoma State made the WAC and Big 12 tourney finals, respectively, with GCU needing to win their tournament to ensure an NCAA bid, while UCSB won its final eight games in Big West play to make the postseason as the last team into the field.
Johnson sees advantages to what Arizona’s regional opponents had to deal with in the final weekend, but the same goes with the UA’s last series against nonconference foe Dixie State. The Wildcats won a pair of close games, including Saturday’s 5-4 walkoff victory, all the while setting up their pitching staff for regionals and getting the entire team into a routine more befitting of postseason play.
“This weekend we hit in the cages, instead of on the field, preparing for being the second game (on Friday),” Johnson said. “I had them show up a little bit later, since we’re going to play at 7 instead of 6. We tried to simulate that as best as we could this weekend to prepare us for the next. We really were deliberate in how we did what we did last weekend, to put all those guys in position to be their best for this weekend.”
Johnson noted that, while Arizona didn’t have a conference tournament and didn’t need to play its way into the field at the end, the Wildcats did have seven games decided by one or two runs over the final five weekends.
“It feels like we’ve been in playoff baseball prior to being in playoff baseball,” he said.