Arizona pitching coach Shaun Cole has two index cards that he carries in his back left pocket. They are full of shorthand notes of all the lessons he’s learned from the UA’s nightmare of a season.
They range from dealing with late-game situations better to what to look for in matchups.
And that’s what this season is for Andy Lopez’s top two lieutenants, Cole and Matt Siegel — the ultimate learning experience.
“If this year doesn’t make those two guys better coaches, then they have lost an unbelievable opportunity,” Lopez said. “As painful and disappointing as this season has been, you have to learn from these times. In athletics, when you’re in a tough situation, you really learn the true makeup of a human being. So, what a great opportunity to say you did it.”
The Wildcats open a three-game home series with Stanford tonight owning an 18-28 record and losers of eight of their last nine games. After this weekend, the UA will travel to Cal for a three-game set next weekend and then host Abilene Christian for three games on the final weekend of the season. For Cole and Siegel, it will mark the end of an eight-month journey they never saw coming.
On the morning of Oct. 4, Lopez called both of his assistants into his office. He informed them he might miss practice that afternoon because he wasn’t feeling great and needed to go to the doctor.
“I didn’t see them again for three months,” Lopez said.
While Lopez was on leave after undergoing open-heart surgery days later, Cole and Siegel were tasked with running the Wildcats. With no interim coach named, the two assistants were in charge of the team’s fall practices and recruiting.
Neither has any head coaching experience on their résumé. Cole is in his fifth season as pitching coach with his only previous coaching experience coming at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, Washington.
Siegel, a former player of Lopez’s at Florida, has been at Arizona since 2012. Before that, he was an assistant at UNLV and TCU.
They ran the six weeks of fall practices and handed the program back over to Lopez when he returned in mid-January.
An ideal situation it was not.
“There was a key element missing and that was the guy that drives the ship,” Cole said. “He’s our leader. Looking back on it, for myself, we were not preparing or planning for that. It kinda came out of nowhere. There was an aftershock, too. I was thinking: ‘Man, I hope he’s OK.’ That thought was lingering over everyone’s mind. And at the same time, you have to get these guys ready to go.
“I’m not making excuses, but looking back at the year, those are the things I’ve reflected back on.”
Lopez has said several times this season that he believes his absence in the fall is a contributing factor to Arizona’s struggles this year. Cole and Siegel agree, but point more to the intangibles than the tangibles.
“One thing I’ve noticed since being here is our offense takes on Andy’s attitude and aggressiveness and I think they were lacking that a little bit,” Cole said. “And from a pitching standpoint, he kicks it up a notch and adds more accountability to what they do and then as a whole, all that stuff comes together.”
Tangibly, Siegel isn’t sure how big of a difference Lopez could have made. The Wildcats are 6-16 in games that were two runs or less after the seventh inning and have struggled in different situations.
“We’ve had trouble driving guys in that are on base,” Siegel said. “I don’t know if that would be any better if Coach Lopez was here in the fall.”
Neither Cole nor Siegel will ever know how much Lopez’s absence has impacted the year, but they do think, despite the ugly record, this year has been good for them.
“I’ve learned a ton,” Siegel said. “I really have. I think as difficult as this season has been, it will make me a better coach down the road and I’m excited for that.”