As if the sports world's emphasis on the individual hasn't reached critical mass, Nike is back with a new ad campaign, set to glorify its latest contribution to world peace. Dubbed the Air Zoom Generation II, the company's new sneaker is being ballyhooed in a series of commercials by NBA superstar LeBron James. Dubbed "The Chamber of Fear," the campaign features James battling through five stages of obstacles - a la Bruce Lee's 1978 "Game of Death" - on his way to self-fulfillment and, more likely, millions of endorsement dollars.
Still, there is a message here - your greatest enemy is only yourself. This works fine in today's me-first NBA, where such upstanding citizens as Latrell Sprewell and Ron Artest complain of management disloyalty and general fatigue from behind prodigious pocketbooks. But in the world of college sports, where the team goes, you go, as well.
Perhaps no other team demonstrated that edict better than last year's UA baseball team. After a tidy 35-win season in 2003, the Kindall Krew went one better in the win column last spring and booked its first College World Series appearance in nearly 20 years. Like James, last year's Rookie of the Year, the team now faces expectations nigh unimaginable.
Which makes me wonder: Will the UA baseball team survive its own Chamber of Fear in 2005?
As mentioned, the Wildcats made their first World Series since 1986 last season. They did so with unqualified depth, relying on a balanced small-ball attack and strong efforts at key positions. Second baseman Moises Duran anchored the infield, while shortstop Jason Donald and outfielder Trevor Crowe eased the losses of outfielder Brian Anderson and two pitchers before the start of the school year. It was the effective meshing of youth and experience that propelled Arizona to a three-game upset of Long Beach State in the Super Regional qualifying round in May and to a later victory over Arkansas.
This year's squad has lost the element of surprise, as well as an important veteran. Duran is gone now, leaving a likely battle between Bryan Kervin and Jason Seefeld to replace him. This is acceptable, as every other starting position player returns. The all-lefty pitching trio of juniors Kevin Guyette and John Meloan and sophomore Mark Melancon is also back, buoyed by new righthanders Matt Baugh, Eric Berger, David Coulon and Mike Koons. As the fall schedule progresses, head coach Andy Lopez will find what he needs for an encore.
The 2005 schedule starts relatively light, with a three-game series at home against New Mexico, followed shortly after with series against Northern Colorado and UT-Pan American. While none of these opponents should put a significant dent in the Wildcats' early-season record, this is when Arizona must forge its offensive and defensive philosophies. It helps to have so many players returning, but any number of newcomers will require acclimation time. The Wildcats need to blast through this part of the schedule unscathed, to prepare for more difficult dates ahead.
Temperatures will be warming in Tucson in March and rightly so, for the second month of Arizona's 2005 schedule will seem like hell. The festivities begin with three home matches against national runner-up Texas, followed by three more against Mississippi State. The Wildcats' season-high 11-game homestand ends with two games against UNLV - and former Wildcat reliever Derek Rodriguez, who transferred over the summer - before visiting defending national champion Cal State Fullerton.
This stretch will be the most important of the season for Arizona. The Pacific 10 Conference schedule begins after the series with the Titans, and the Wildcats must prove that last year's World Series berth won't be the last until our children join the team. Lopez has shown improvement in each of his three years managing for Arizona and if he can lead the team to an above-.500 March record - reasonable since the Wildcats swept Fullerton in February - it may not be early to start casting Manager of the Year ballots.
Of Arizona's 36 victories last season, only 12 of them came in conference play. The team's .500 record in the Pac-10 can't be repeated, especially letdowns against Washington and Arizona State, and improvement must be made early - the team sported a 4-7 conference mark in April.
Integral to a rebound will be the contributions of Crowe and junior catcher Nick Hundley. The two players led the team in batting average during Pac-10 play (.390 and .421, respectively) and were nearly perfect in the field. Five returning players batted .300 or better against conference opponents, and that mark must be improved or maintained for the team to climb in the standings.
Arizona shouldn't fret. Its momentum right now is close to that of the '86 national championship team, and the incoming talent does plenty to raise hope, both for this year and beyond. Lopez has been stellar as manager and keeps finding ways to succeed without an all-cherished masher in the lineup. This team knows what it can accomplish - especially Crowe, who won a gold medal with the U.S. national team this summer - and won't lose its footing if it stays confident. Defeating Long Beach State told Arizona it could win against the nation's elite, and the team rode those victories to its best finish in two decades.
With a continued focus on teamwork this spring, the Wildcats should have no problems conquering their fears.
-Tom Knauer is a journalism sophomore. He can be reached at email@example.com