Mike Stoops sat behind a portable table at the 30-yard line and began signing autographs. The line began with 10 people, grew to 50 and stayed that way for about 15 minutes after the Arizona Wildcats' spring football game Saturday afternoon.
Each of the posters signed by the UA's football coach said "GAME ON," and isn't that the truth? The Pac-10's second-place team of 2009 has been reshaped since Dec. 30 with a hybrid "Cheetah" formation on defense, with 260-pound blocking back Taimi Tutogi playing tailback, and with the novel idea of co-coordinators on offense and defense.
Rather than accept their tradition role of pursuer, the bigger-faster-deeper Wildcats have become an aggressor.
"We're going in a new direction," said junior quarterback Nick Foles. "We've got a lot of new stuff."
Said Stoops: "If we get our offensive line solidified, we should be able to score points in bunches."
It is good that Stoops speaks with such confidence in public settings. It has obviously increased his team's self-esteem, and it will help in marketing an appealing home schedule that includes USC, Iowa, ASU, Washington, Cal and Oregon State.
There remains a potential for trouble at linebacker, and no one is comparing the '10 Wildcats to Alabama or Ohio State, but in the context of UA football, the Wildcats leave spring training with the look of a Pac-10 first-division team that could beat any other on the schedule.
Reno Aces find new, fun home a far cry from TEP
Read it and weep: Tucson's old Pacific Coast League franchise began its second season Thursday at Aces Ballpark in downtown Reno, Nev. It drew a capacity crowd of 9,143, but that's not the point. The point is that Reno also debuted its Freight House District downtown, adjacent to the ballpark. The $12 million development includes four restaurants, several stages for live music, and festival seating for indoor/outdoor concerts. Call it an opportunity missed in Tucson. … Sabino High grad Tim Wood was initially sent to Triple-A New Orleans by the Florida Marlins, but an injury two days before the opener created a roster spot and Wood made the most of his recall to the big leagues. The 27-year-old right-hander from Pima College pitched a perfect 10th inning Wednesday against the Mets for his first major-league save. … Butler's Final Four basketball coach Brad Stevens is a graduate of DePauw University, which puts him on that Indiana school's Mount Rushmore of athletic figures. He joins ex-baseball commissioner Ford Frick, ex-Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi and former Arizona football coach Dick Tomey. … CDO grad and Arizona's 2008 All-Pac-10 center fielder T. J. Steele continues a path toward the big leagues. Steele was promoted to Houston's Double-A Corpus Christi affiliate for last week's opener. Baseball America says Steele is Houston's No. 10 overall minor-league prospect. He hit .345 for Class A Lancaster last season. … On Monday, the UA will announce it is spending more than $1 million to construct a weight-training facility at the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium. The money comes from a private donor. The UA blew it four years ago by not designing a bigger and better practice arena that included shower facilities, a dressing room, and perhaps 3,000 seats that would've made it possible to play Pac-10 volleyball and women's basketball games and have gymnastics meets there. By the time the Jefferson facility opened, it was outdated in college basketball.
Strug's Hall of Fame induction must wait
The Arizona Sports Hall of Fame, which last week inducted Lute Olson, Bob Baffert and Sean Elliott, still has some kinks to work out as it begins with a new administration. Instead of selecting a fifth member to the Class of 2010, it left that spot open to online voting of several candidates, among them Tucson's Kerri Strug, gymnastics darling of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Alas, the Arizona Golf Association aggressively asked its members to vote online for journeyman golfer Billy Mayfair. It worked. Mayfair was the runaway voting leader for the final spot. Strug will marry Washington D. C. attorney Robert Fischer April 25 at Skyline Country Club. … Sabino grad Molly Johnson, a consensus All-America shortstop last season at Kentucky, is one of 10 finalists for the Lowe's Senior Class Award. Molly started her 200th consecutive game last week and has a lifetime batting average of .391, tops in Kentucky history. The Lowe's award is based on academics and athletics; Johnson has a 3.2 GPA in kinesiology. … The Games of the Year in ACCAC softball will be played Tuesday afternoon at Pima College. Defending national champion Yavapai, coached by ex-PCC, two-time NJCAA title coach Stacy Iveson will play the 12th-ranked Aztecs in a 2 p.m., doubleheader. Coach Armando Quiroz's club is 47-7 and is led by Sierra Vista pitcher Jordan Trujillo, who is 24-3 with 222 strikeouts in 166 innings. Rincon grad Charissa Ballesteros is hitting .432 with 64 RBIs for Pima.
UA swimmer earns first paycheck, Team USA bid
After becoming an All-American for the third consecutive season, UA senior Marcus Titus from Flowing Wells High turned pro immediately after the NCAA swimming championships. He earned $3,000 by winning USA Swimming's Grand Prix in Columbus, Ohio, last week, taking the 100 breast stroke over the nation's top-ranked breast stroker, Eric Shanteau. Titus thus clinched a spot on Team USA for this summer's Pan Pacific Games. … Incoming UA freshman Sarah Denninghoff of Sabino and North Carolina State-bound Barrett Miesfeld, a two-time state champion from Catalina Foothills, have been selected to the USA Junior Team that will swim in Dublin from April 29 to May 2. Denninghoff and Miesfeld both qualified for the team in last week's NCSA Junior Nationals in Orlando, Fla. Their coach, Roric Fink of the Tucson Ford Dealers Aquatic Club, has been named to help coach Team USA. … Sahuaro High grad Caitlin Leverenz had such a productive freshman season at Cal that she was named the Pac-10 women's freshman swimmer of the year. Leverenz became an All-American by making the finals of the NCAA 200 backstroke and 200 individual medley. … Here's how difficult college golf is at the elite level: Arizona was on the brink of winning its most significant men's tournament title since 2006 at last week's Thunderbird Invitational in Tempe. But in the final of three rounds, Arizona's No. 1 golfer, Tarquin MacManus, encountered unusual difficulty at the 13th hole, finishing with a quintuple bogey 9. On the 18th hole, the Wildcats' No. 2 player, Rich Saferian, had a triple-bogey 7. Those two holes dropped Arizona from a stunning victory to fourth place. The good news is that Rick LaRose's team appears strong enough to stay afloat in the Pac-10 finals April 26-28 in Tempe. Four of the nation's Top 10 teams are in the Pac-10.
Santa Rita coach to hang up spikes after 30 years
Santa Rita High baseball coach Dan Moore coached the Eagles to the 1986 state title, the 2000 championship game and was on hand as Santa Rita won more than 400 games in 30 seasons. The former Sahuaro standout will retire from coaching at the end of the season. He will be honored at the school's ballpark before a May 4 game against Amphi. The field then will be dedicated and named for Moore; it's a well-deserved honor. … Incoming UA power forward Reggie Perry of John A. Logan College in southern Illinois, a first-team NJCAA All-American, has all the right numbers. A dominating JC player of his size should be expected to shoot a lot of free throws (he averaged 7.6), rebound in double figures (he averaged 10.9) and shoot a high percentage from the field (he shot .571). Even better, he doesn't appear to be a gunner. Only once did he shoot more than 16 times for Logan this season. … Former Pima College pitchers swapped places on the Pittsburgh Pirates roster a day before opening day. Safford's D.J. Carrasco was promoted to the big-league roster and Sierra Vista's Donald Veal was sent to Triple-A Indianapolis. The Pirates say Veal, who pitched just 16 big-league innings last year, needs steady work rather than be a middle reliever on the major-league roster.
MY TWO CENTS
Miller's advocacy of Natyazhko eventually may pay dividends
Sean Miller has been the most vocal advocate of UA freshman center Kyryl Natyazhko, who is a work in progress, to say the least.
Arizona's coach said several times that, in practice, "We've seen what he can do" and that the Ukrainian center is "an important part of our future."
Here's why you don't give up on a big guy easily:
Duke center Brian Zoubek averaged 3.1 points and 2.2 rebounds as a freshman, and 3.8 points and 3.4 rebounds as a sophomore.
He was widely criticized by impatient Dookie fans. Last week, Zoubek was a key part of Duke's national championship run.
The compelling question at hand is whether Natyazhko will be more like A.J. Bramlett or Kirk Walters. As freshmen, Walters averaged 0.9 points and Bramlett 1.9 points. Bramlett developed; Walters didn't.
I think Natyazhko will ultimately be a much better player than ASU's outgoing Eric Boateng, who struggled at Duke and as a Sun Devil, never averaging more than 3.9 points until, as a fifth-year senior, he averaged 8.8 points and 7.2 rebounds.