CWS title at 10: Andy Lopez on Arizona’s ‘remarkable’ championship run in 2012 | Arizona Wildcats Baseball

What made the 2012 Arizona baseball team so special?

“Honestly,” star pitcher Kurt Heyer said, “it’s giving me chills just thinking about it.”

Ten years have passed since the Wildcats won the College World Series. Heyer needed no time to summarize how it all came together.

“We bought into what Lopez was feeding us,” Heyer said, referring to the architect of that title team, Andy Lopez. “It’s not like we had guys that threw 98 or guys that hit 20 home runs. It was just guys that knew how to play the game and execute the game.

“That was the thing that separated us. We were able to minimize mistakes and just play the game right. We weren’t flashy. We just went in and took care of business.

“It was like a job for us. It was like, ‘All right, we’re here for three hours. Let’s execute the game as best we can and go home with a W.’ And that’s it.”

Heyer makes it sound so simple. In reality, it took years of building — and multiple disappointments — for the UA program to win its first championship since 1986.

Lopez took the job in July 2001 after a seven-year stint at Florida during which the Gators twice advanced to the CWS. Lopez previously had led Pepperdine to the national championship.

Arizona was in the midst of a down cycle. The Wildcats had qualified for the NCAA Tournament only once in the previous eight seasons.

In Lopez’s third year, 2004, they made it back to Omaha. In 2008, they made it to a Super Regional. In 2012, they broke through.

Lopez, 68, retired after the 2015 season. He lives in Tucson and remains as sharp and engaging as ever.

In a recent phone interview with the Star, the Hall of Fame coach reminisced about the 2012 championship run. The 90-minute conversation has been condensed and lightly edited:

When you think back to that team and that year, what is the first thing that comes to mind?

A: “Honestly, satisfaction. A real kind of completion for me personally.

“From 1995 to 2001, I was consumed with trying to do a good job at Florida. A lot on my plate. I really had no clue what was going on in the Pac because I was consumed with the Southeastern Conference and just trying to make it work there.

“I had no clue that this program, when I showed up here to take the job, had been to one regional in eight years and went 0-2 in that regional.

“I was in the Dallas airport. I looked at it and I went, ‘Holy smokes, what happened?’ So I made a couple of calls. I called two guys that were very successful in the conference, Mike Gillespie at USC and Mark Marquess at Sanford. I said, ‘Hey, talk to me a little bit about the program.’ They both said the facility is down, it’s not relevant; they’re not a threat in conference anymore, they don’t go to regionals anymore.’

“So I thought to myself, ‘Boy, we really gotta make some adjustments.’ With all that as the background, we go to Omaha my third year here. That’s great. In 2008, I really feel like we should have won a national title. We had great pitching that year, fantastic pitching.

“And then 2012 happened. It’s just the sense of accomplishment that we did what we said we were going to do. When (former AD) Jim Livengood called me, I said I really believe that we can win a national title, because it’s been done. If it’s been done, it can be done again.

“For my athletes, what a special year. They really weren’t given a lot of credit. But what they were able to do was remarkable.”

Former UA coach Andy Lopez is now an analyst for Pac-12 Networks. He helped broadcast the Wildcats’ rivalry series against ASU in April.

How did you go about building the program up?

A: “Recruiting. I had a track record that wherever I went, we went to a World Series. I looked at the teams at the top. I got their rosters. Where are they recruiting from? Where are they getting their players? We need to get players from there.

“When I came here, I got USC’s roster, I got Arizona State’s roster, I got Stanford’s roster. … I asked Matt Rector (former Arizona sports information director), (to) give me the ‘76 roster, give me the ‘80 roster and the ‘86 roster (the UA’s previous three CWS champs). I looked at those rosters. Where are they getting their players from? I knew, but I just wanted confirmation: They were getting their players from California.

“That’s the answer. People were upset with me about that: ‘You’re not recruiting Tucson guys.’ But we (had to) get back on top. We (had to) get back to national prominence.

“The rosters of ’76 and ’80 and ’86, they had some Tucson guys. But … there’s a lot of California flavor.

“So we started recruiting heavily back in Southern California. And fortunately got some pretty good players.”

UA coach Andy Lopez feels the love from fans during the Wildcats’ College World Series celebration with fans at McKale Center.

What was the impact of moving to Hi Corbett Field that year?

A: “Game changer. We were a (regional) 1-seed in ’05 and went to Fullerton. We were a 1-seed in ’08 and went to Michigan. I mean, come on. We’re a 1-seed and we’re traveling all over the country?

“The facilities were down, they were old. All due respect, I won my 1,000th career game at (Frank Sancet Stadium). I have great memories. Coach (Jerry) Kindall and I were dear friends. I know he wasn’t real happy about us moving away from Sancet. I told him, ‘I understand completely. But we can’t host here anymore. They won’t give it to us. We gotta do something.’

“Lo and behold, we were a 1-seed (again). We host and we win and go to Omaha. It wasn’t hard to figure out.”

You beat St. John’s in the Super Regional in blistering heat.

A: “Murderous. No doubt. There will always be an advantage. I always felt like it was an advantage when we played the Northwest schools here in May. I did the Pac-12 games here for the Oregon State series (this year). I said that on the air. Two things are going to happen this weekend: One, it’s going to be really hot for these guys from Corvallis, and you’ll see it from the fifth inning on. We used to see it all the time.

“The other thing is the field. It’s going to be rock hard, and it’s going to play fast. Groundballs are gonna get on people; groundballs are gonna chew people up. Lo and behold, their shortstop made a couple errors.

“So yeah, when St. John’s came in, it was hot. Man, it was hot.”

Was there a point during the 2012 season when you thought, “Hey, we might have something special here?”

A: “Believe it or not, after we got beat (the year before). In 2011, we go to Texas A&M and we get to the championship game; winner goes to the Super Regional at Florida State. And we’re lined up good. (Aggies aces Michael Wacha and Ross Stripling already had started in the regional.)

“We go up to the field. We’re feeling pretty good. And it’s a lightning delay. We do not play that game because of lightning. It never rained. It did not rain one drop.

“We get on the bus, we go back to the hotel and guess what? They checked us out of our hotel. We have no rooms. It’s like 11:30, midnight. We gotta play the next afternoon. So they start scrambling. They put me and two or three of my players and my coaching staff at one hotel; they put another group in another hotel. It’s like we’re vagabonds.

“But I thought, ‘These guys are tough.’ They showed it to me that year. We go back and we’re facing Michael Wacha now. (Wacha was able to pitch because of the postponement.)

“We get beat. (But) it’s within reach. I saw the look on those guys’ faces. If these guys stay healthy next year, they’re gonna be juniors. These guys are going to do some damage.

“They solidified that for me when Stanford showed up here. They were loaded. They had first- and second-rounders all over the field, and we swept them.

“I remember going to dinner after the game on Sunday. We’d go to the Claim Jumper. My wife was sitting next to me. She said, ‘Wow, what a good weekend.’ And I whispered in her ear, These guys are gonna make a run — they’re gonna make a long run.’”

Arizona’s veteran core, led by shortstop Alex Mejia, took their 2011 elimination personally. “I saw the look on those guys’ faces,” coach Andy Lopez said. “If these guys stay healthy next year, they’re gonna be juniors. These guys are going to do some damage.”

Fast-forward to the postseason. You make that run. You sweep South Carolina. Robert Refsnyder secures the final out.

A: “Then the circus starts. I have two pictures in my office. Two baseballs and two pictures, both the last outs in Omaha. The ’92 picture, we (Pepperdine) beat Fullerton for the national title and … there’s no one to be seen. There’s nothing except a bunch of guys in a dogpile.

“Right underneath, the 2012 picture, it looks like a rock concert. Confetti, fireworks, (former AD) Greg Byrne’s on the field.

“I would never include myself in dogpiles. I just used to sit back and admire what those young guys accomplished.

“What an unbelievable experience. I saw my sons (both walk-on players) be a part of that dogpile. I saw Bobby Brown, who was a fifth-year senior who (had) never played.

“It was a good group, man.”