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Arizona baseball coach Jay Johnson leaning on trustworthy staff ahead of College World Series

NCAA Baseball: Tucson Super Regional Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Four games into Arizona baseball’s 2021 season, head coach Jay Johnson turned to assistant Dave Lawn with an unusual request: how would he feel about stepping in as third base coach?

The Wildcats had just lost two straight games to Ball State, and Johnson felt a change of scenery was necessary to maximize his coaching potential. So, after serving as third base coach his first five seasons at Arizona, Johnson decided he should manage the Wildcats’ offense from the dugout.

That meant Lawn, a veteran pitching coach turned defensive coordinator, would take over as third base coach despite no prior collegiate experience in that role.

“That’s probably not very fair, but I knew it was the best thing for our team to come into our dugout for a variety of reasons” Johnson said.

The move allowed Johnson to serve as a more hands-on instructor in the dugout, while Lawn mastered the ropes of coaching third base. Lawn, who joined Johnson’s staff at Nevada in 2013, quickly excelled at his new position.

“In terms of stop signs, sending guys, all of those types of things, especially with no forewarning, I think it’s another example of how quality of a person he is to take on whatever is in the best interest of the team,” Johnson said. “He’s done it a couple times in his tenure here, and he’s done it really, really well.”

While Johnson and pitching coach Nate Yeskie receive much of the credit for leading Arizona to its 18th College World Series appearance, Johnson is the first to recognize the work done by the staff’s less recognizable names: Lawn, Marc Wanaka, Cameron Ming and Tyler Nordgren.

Johnson puts an emphasis on trust and character when building a staff. One reason why is that coaching college baseball is often a thankless profession.

Each staff is only allowed two full-time, paid assistant coaches, which leaves guys like Wanaka, Arizona’s hitting coach, in a volunteer capacity. Wanaka followed Johnson from Nevada to Arizona in 2015 and has grown into one of the west coast’s most respected offensive minds.

Under Wanaka’s watch, Arizona ranks first in the nation in runs (526) second in on-base percentage (.428), and fourth in batting average (.329).

“He and I are so in tune together with what makes a good hitter and swing mechanics and all of that,” Johnson said. “He does a terrific job taking players one-on-one, and seeing players where they’re at and what they need to do.”

Johnson has equally glowing things to say about Cameron Ming, an undergraduate assistant who pitched on Arizona’s 2016 College World Series team. Johnson calls him one of the most important pitchers he’s ever had on one of his teams.

Ming spent three years in the Baltimore Orioles organization before returning to Tucson last year to complete his degree.

Now in his second year on staff, Ming has grown into a pitching coach protege of sorts under Yeskie. Ming typically works out of the bullpen, where he communicates with Johnson by way of a walkie talkie. When Johnson is ready to make a pitching change, he’ll consult with Ming, who is tasked with making sure relievers are executing proper warmups.

“With Cameron, his mentality as a player and his competitiveness is going to make him a great coach one day, because he really wants to win,” Johnson said. “You have to have that in this profession if you want to be successful in this profession because that drive is going to help you overcome the difficulties that along with it, and I think he has that.”

The latest addition to the staff is Director of Baseball Operations (DOBO) Tyler Nordgren, who joined the program in January from his alma mater Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the NCAA laxed rules allowing DOBOs to throw batting practice and hit ground balls. Johnson was looking for someone who foremost could do those tasks.

Nordgren, a former third baseman, also fulfilled Johnson’s second criteria of being selfless and trustworthy.

“The organizational skills, the maturity has been a big time improvement and helped us really improve as a staff,” Johnson said of Nordgren.

“All of these guys are exceptional and a large reason why we’re sitting here ... (talking) about the College World Series.”