By Michael Schwartz
EVAN CARAVELLI/Arizona Daily Wildcat
This year's junior class is largely responsible for the Wildcats' return to national prominence. From left: Bill Rhinehart, Chris Frey, Nick Hundley, Trevor Crowe, John Meloan and Jordan Brown.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, March 22, 2005
When Arizona head baseball coach Andy Lopez arrived at Arizona three years ago, he brought more than a winning track record.
He also brought the recruiting class of 2002.
Three years later, this group has transformed Arizona baseball into one of the nation's elite baseball programs.
After taking one of three games against No. 2 California State Fullerton, Arizona (16-9) holds a No. 9 national ranking behind the power of its potent junior-led offense, which averages nine runs per game.
Left fielder Trevor Crowe, first baseman Jordan Brown, catcher Nick Hundley, center fielder Chris Frey and second baseman Brad Boyer - all juniors - lead the high-octane offense, while junior ace John Meloan has developed into a quality Friday starter.
Reserve junior outfielder Derek Decater and redshirt sophomore second baseman Lee Franklin provide quality depth.
This recruiting class, ranked No. 10 by Collegiate Baseball magazine in 2002, has contributed largely to Arizona's success the past two seasons.
The Wildcats reached the College World Series for the first time since 1986 last season and have reached the playoffs in both of this class's two previous years.
Lopez said it helps his veteran-laden squad tremendously to have so many experienced players in the lineup.
"You don't need to say a lot to them," he said. "They understand what needs to be done. They've been to the World Series. They understand what it takes to win and win a regional and a super regional. The motivation is there because they instill it among their teammates, and that intangible is there because they have good makeup in themselves."
This veteran experience has translated into big-time numbers on the field.
Leadoff hitter Crowe (.398, four home runs, 26 RBIs, 10 steals) and two-hole hitter Boyer (.208, 16 RBIs, five steals) set the table for middle of the lineup hitters Brown (.389, seven home runs, 33 RBIs) and Hundley (.360, five home runs, 16 RBIs, seven steals), while Frey adds punch to the bottom of the order (.385, 22 RBIs).
Meloan (4-0, 2.97 ERA, 51 strikeouts) anchors the pitching staff as the Friday starter having lost only one game in his Arizona career, a relief outing during his freshman campaign in which he did not allow any earned runs.
This quality experience in the lineup diffuses the pressure from each individual player.
"We're all used to big situations," Brown said. "We've all experienced big at-bats in key situations. We all know if one person doesn't come through here, you know the next guy is just as capable as the next one and so on."
Just like the offense, it all started with Crowe, who became Lopez's lead recruiter upon joining Boyer as the first two players signed with Arizona in the Lopez era.
"I just talked to Hundley on the phone and Brown and Meloan and some of those guys and said, 'Hey, this place is a gold mine waiting to happen, and it's just waiting for a bunch of good players to come in here and turn it around,'" Crowe said. "I'd seen some of those guys play, and I said, 'We definitely have the talent to do that, so jump on board, and let's get it done here.'"
While Crowe's urging certainly played a role in getting this group on campus, Lopez's track record also contributed greatly. As a veteran of three College World Series appearances, having taken both Pepperdine and Florida, the results spoke for themselves.
"I asked them to come here and turn the place around," Lopez said. "We've had a history of doing that wherever I've gone. I've never had a recruiting class that didn't get to the College World Series, and I wanted them to come here and be the one I could say that about them, and they have done that."
Brown said Lopez's experience in turning programs around ultimately made him choose Arizona, while Hundley said Lopez talked about even greater goals than that.
"He talked about the tradition here, how they had won three national championships, and the biggest thing he talked about was getting to Omaha and playing for Omaha," Hundley said. "He was literally the only coach who stressed winning a national championship as the biggest thing."
While the Wildcats have not achieved that goal, they are well on their way in Lopez's rebuilding process.
After missing the postseason in his first season, Lopez guided Arizona to the playoffs for the second time since 1993 in this group's freshmen year in 2003. Last year he became the fastest Wildcat skipper to reach a College World Series, doing so in just his third year.
"I hope that when they look back they say the recruiting class with Hundley, Decater, Boyer, Frey, everyone who was in that Fall '02 class, they say, 'God, you know that was the first class of a step toward Arizona getting back to national prominence, top-five program every year again,'" Crowe said.
After last season's postseason run and this year's top-10 national ranking, Lopez and the freshmen class of 2002 have made Arizona baseball a force to be reckoned with.
"We turned around the program back to the nation's elite, being in the top 10 and being a team that a lot of people look at as a powerhouse again," Hundley said.
However, the work is not complete.
Before many of these juniors leave for the major league draft this summer, one more goal remains on the agenda, a feat not accomplished since 1986.
"I think we're in the right direction," Crowe said. "Turning the program around would mean we hang another red sign out there."