Arizona Wildcats coach Jay Johnson wants to play a full 56-game schedule this season. He wants his players to have the experience they lost a year ago.
But you know the drill. So does Johnson. The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t gone away.
“It’s the story right now,” Johnson said this week.
While the Pac-12 Conference is pushing for a “normal” 56-game slate, it’s highly unlikely it’ll play out that way. There are bound to bumps on the road to Omaha.
“I’m confident that we’re playing,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of people that have put in a lot of time to get us to this point.
“Do I think there’s gonna be challenges and disruptions? I do. Do I think there’s gonna be a game or two that gets canceled where we’ve gotta figure out somebody else to play? I do. I think we’d all be naive if we weren’t going in with those thoughts.
“What I want to make sure we’re doing is, in our program, positioning ourselves to where we’re not getting shut down. ... We’re going to take every measure to stay on the field for the duration of the season.”
The Wildcats pulled off a successful fall practice thanks to some minor but critical tweaks such as utilizing the diamonds adjacent to Hi Corbett Field.
They began workouts Wednesday and are slated to hold their first official full-squad practice Jan. 29.
The season opener is slated for Feb. 19 against Ball State. The Cardinals weren’t the originally scheduled opponent.
“It’s been changed three times,” Johnson said. “The other two teams were not comfortable traveling.”
So it goes during the pandemic. Every school has conditions under which it must operate. Every conference has a different approach.
Johnson said every non-conference weekend he had booked a year ago has changed, with one exception: the March 5-7 Frisco College Baseball Classic in Frisco, Texas. And even that has been altered: Dallas Baptist has replaced Michigan State in the four-team tournament.
Arizona played 15 games in 2020 before the pandemic shut down the season, along with every other NCAA sport.
Unlike some other conferences, the Pac-12 hasn’t made any official announcements about the ’21 campaign. Some leagues are moving to four-game weekend series instead of the standard three. The Pac-12 plan for now is to continue with three-game sets, meaning the usual 30 conference games for each of the 11 schools that play baseball.
“We’re proceeding with business as usual,” Johnson said. “Things can change. ... But the hope and goal that’s been passed down to us from Pac-12 administration is they want as little disruption as possible with this season, because we essentially lost 80% of our season last year.”
Johnson used that same figure — 80% — in assessing Arizona’s work during fall ball. One element that was missing was the locker room. The Wildcats simply didn’t use it to mitigate the possible transmission of the virus. Johnson and his staff are working on a plan to schedule shifts for the players to utilize the clubhouse in smaller groups.
Other adjustments on tap for ’21 include renting two buses for road trips and purchasing assigned seating on flights to ensure social distancing.
“Literally anything we can do to keep as many players on the field as we possibly can for the most amount of time that we can,” Johnson said.
The Wildcats have plenty of incentive to do the right things. Collegiate Baseball ranked Arizona 10th in its preseason poll. Perfect Game had the Cats 11th.
It remains to be seen whether fans, or family members of the players and coaches, will be allowed to watch it all unfold in person. As with the season itself, Johnson remains optimistic.
“I want our fans in there if there’s any possible chance of that,” Johnson said. “I value them. I’m hopeful that at some point in 2021 we will have our normal crew out there and create the environment that’s been so good here.”
A lot on their plate
Another change in 2021: larger rosters.
When the NCAA granted all players an extra year of eligibility, it also lifted the usual cap on roster size.
Arizona currently has 45 players, up from the typical 35. Four will redshirt this season, Johnson said: pitcher Bryce Collins (who’s still recovering from elbow surgery), first baseman/pitcher TJ Curd, infielder Jack Grant and outfielder Tag Bross.
One way in which bigger rosters will benefit teams is that it enables them to carry more catchers. Like quarterback in football, catcher is the position that must be safeguarded during the pandemic.
“The catching position is probably the one that we’re the most cautious of or aware of,” Johnson said, “because that can really derail or impact the game.”
Arizona is carrying three catchers. Freshman Daniel Susac and second-year player Kaden Hopson are expected to split most of the catching duties. The UA added transfer Cameron LaLiberte from Chandler Gilbert Community College as a third option.
Infielders Kobe Kato and Jacob Shaver are the emergency catchers.
- Arizona returns all of its top pitchers from last season and added two right-handers who are expected to have an immediate impact. One is Chase Silseth, a transfer from College of Southern Nevada. Silseth’s fastball has hit 96 mph, Johnson said. Silseth also is one of the top competitors on the team, regularly beating the rest of the pitching staff in conditioning drills.
- The other new righty who’s in the mix for the starting rotation is freshman TJ Nichols. Nichols came to Arizona from Roseville, California, as a two-way player. With a fastball that has touched 98 mph, he’s expected to mainly work as a pitcher in his first season.
- Silseth and Nichols are among the pitchers who will be stretched out for starting opportunities. Others include right-handers Quinn Flanagan, Chandler Murphy and Dawson Netz; and left-hander Garrett Irvin. Johnson envisions lefty Ian Churchill filling a “hybrid” role.
- Arizona has invested heavily in pitching to the point that Johnson said it could be “the strength of the team.” That would be a radical departure from recent seasons, when the Wildcats had dominant offenses but were held back by their pitching staff.
- Besides Susac and Nichols, third baseman Jacob Berry and outfielder Chase Davis are expected to have sizable roles as freshmen. D1Baseball.com ranked Arizona’s overall class of newcomers as the fourth-best in the nation.