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Their ace Nathan Bannister exits in the third inning Friday because of stiffness in his right pitching forearm. The Arizona Wildcats proceed to outscore Oklahoma State 11-4 over the next 13 innings, winning both elimination games by wide margins to qualify for the College World Series championship round.
They face Coastal Carolina in a best-of-three series for the title starting tomorrow at 4 p.m. at Omaha, Neb.
Not once was it obvious that Bannister and his teammates became unsettled after his untimely injury. Not one sign of despair.
In the postgame interview session, Bannister did not shy away from a crowd of reporters at his locker. He did not have his head covered by a towel alone in the corner. He looked reporters in the eye and faced the cameras without a trace of feeling sorry for himself.
How refreshing to see that kind of behavior in this day and age in which athletes of all ages are consumed with their own agenda.
This group of Wildcats confront challenges and adversity with confidence. No negative energy for positive results. None of that we-better-or-else mentality. It is no fluke Arizona is now 6-0 in postseason elimination games, having swept Louisiana-Lafayette on the road and Oklahoma State at the College World Series in consecutive games along the way. The Wildcats also swept host Mississippi State in the Super Regional.
Arizona’s first-year coach Jay Johnson is responsible for all of this. He goes about his business thinking about what’s next, not about what might be left behind.
“Monday, let’s go,” Johnson said with conviction about the start of the series against Coastal Carolina.
Rich Rodriguez is known for his “Hard Edge” approach that he exudes with his players. Sean Miller thrives off the “Player’s Program” slogan when it comes to recruiting and trying to coach them into better players and human beings.
Johnson’s motto is “Creed”, which he posts on Twitter with a hashtag with a team photo after every Arizona win.
“It’s the team creed,” Arizona assistant Sergio Brown explained to AZDesertSwarm.com. “And so it’s about our mission statement a little bit, so that’s what the hashtag ‘CREED’ is all about. It’s the mission statement, so that’s what the players know.”
The C.R.E.E.D. acronym stands for:
C — Compete
R — Relentless
E — Energy
E — Execute
D — Do it for Josh.
“Do it for Josh” is a tribute of Arizona’s players and coaches to the memory of fan Josh Weaver, a boy who passed away before the season started following a bout with cancer.
When talking to a group of reporters after Saturday’s 5-1 win over Oklahoma State and pitching stud Thomas Hatch, Johnson said, “Those guys deserve to enjoy that accomplishment today … I have no doubt they’ll prepare like champions. That’s what they do every day of their life.”
Johnson said this with a cool, calm, confident demeanor, like a tried and true coach who knows what it takes to win in Omaha. But this is his first trip there as a head coach in his first season at a Power 5 school. When Arizona won the title there four years ago under veteran coach Andy Lopez, Johnson was in his seventh season as a San Diego assistant coach.
From an outsider’s perspective, what makes Johnson relate so well to his players is that he allows them to be themselves. Most of these guys are ages 18 to 21. College students. Let them be.
#BearDown Proud Alum
🎼BEARDOWN ARIZONA, BEARDOWN RED AND BLUE, BEARDOWN ARIZONA, HIT EM HARD LET EM KNOW WHOS WHO (FIGHT FIGHT)🎼 🐻⬇️🐾 #GoingToTheShip
One snapshot of the College World Series so far is Johnson looking over at the dugout when some of the Wildcats engaged in some hijinks with one player shampooing the hair of another before applying some gel. The other players looked on and laughed. Johnson turned to them from the third base coaching box, then looked at the batter and clapped his hands without batting an eye. He didn’t tell his guys in the dugout to stop.
This kind of run Arizona is experiencing reminds me of how the Wildcats’ 1996-97 basketball national title team fed off a more relaxed, less stressful Lute Olson, who before that championship experienced unnerving first-round exits.
The things I would do to be in this dugout 😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/HWgzoEfsSC
Johnson is a coach who understands that athletes are responsible for his success, not only the other way around. Harmony exists. Give and take must happen. We see that with this Arizona team, one that wildly celebrates with expressive dancing in the dugout. A hat made out of a Cheez-It box never looked so good on pitcher Robby Medel’s head instead of a baseball cap.
Let them be themselves. No sense in creating more pressure than they already face at the College World Series or in general as college students. That kind of understanding and placing an emphasis on fun by Johnson and his staff has developed an unmistakable bond.
“I think the sense I get, and if you were to say what’s the pressure, the consequence of the circumstance of what we’re doing, is we love being together,” Johnson said. “And they love being together. And we want to keep going as long as we possibly can.
“Yeah, the competitive side to it … I’d walk down an alley with those guys at two in the morning at the roughest part of the world … we’re going to come out of it fine.”
And I can't forget about my boys; congrats, @ArizonaBaseball in the huge victory today! Bring that title back to Tucson next week! 🐻⬇️
With the win today, @UACoachJ becomes just the 5th coach ever & 1st since 1994 to take his team to CWS Finals in 1st year at a school.
Arizona vs. Coastal Carolina in the CWS championship series. Don't try to figure out sports, just enjoy them.
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.