Schu Strings: The Boys of Summer are back

In a bizarre twist of summer fate, the sport of conversation in Tucson is….baseball? Despite a decent, but far from spectacular season, the UA baseball team is the last Pac-10 team standing, and with two wins at Long Beach State can return to what was once familiar territory: the College World Series.

Baseball was the first program at Arizona to really develop a tradition. Before Lute Olson made men's basketball king, Frank Sancet and Jerry Kindall were guiding the UA to glory on the diamond. Arizona has won the national title on three occasions in its 14 College World Series appearances.

But as we all know, times have been lean at the place now named for Sancet and Kindall. Arizona has been off the baseball map for well over a decade. Meanwhile, a few blocks away at Hillenbrand Stadium, UA softball started turning heads, and well before it placed its sixth national banner on the outfield wall, the fans showed their appreciation. But in many ways they did so at the expense of attendance at Sancet, which ranked as a ritual of some hilarity every game when the laughably inflated "official" figures would be announced.

Even this year, it looked like more of the same. Arizona softball was mowing through the competition while baseball seemed to do just well enough to be ok. Once again, it looked as if the mantra for the men was wait until next year. Well, next year might have arrived Sunday.

It's still amazing to me the level by which the postseason can make or break a team's year. Obviously, it's about what team performs best in the end. That's what championships are all about. In the pros it's different because extended series tend to reflect the results compiled during the course of the year. Basically, the best team in the regular season is probably going to be the best team in a first-to-four format.

We all know that's different in college, and Arizona's two highest profile spring sports can attest to that first-hand. Which team really had a better year: softball or baseball? Well, softball lost four games in the regular season and entered its regional as the nation's top ranked team after clinching the Pac-10 title a week before the schedule concluded. Baseball played a gauntlet slate, but hovered just above .500 for most of the year, and needed a late-season charge just to get the looks of the committee. It's very possible Arizona advanced to the NCAAs in the last game on its docket only because it held off USC by a run, thus taking two of three in the final series of the regular season.

But in college athletics, everything can change in a day. For Arizona softball, that day was Saturday. The UA lost to Oklahoma, and couldn't bounce back against Louisiana-Lafayette. It was eliminated from a regional, and the regional it hosted, for the first time in 17 seasons.

One day and you're done.

Or one day and you're on the way.

Baseball, on the other hand, managed a three-seed in South Bend's four-team regional, but probably got the benefit of the most favorable group in the field. By virtue of that loaded schedule, Arizona was prepared, and moved through because of clutch performances, one of two three seeds (the other is Tulane) now donning Cinderella's cleats. In Ryan Radtke's story in the last issue of Cat Tracks Magazine that outlined what Arizona would have to do to be successful the rest of the season, baseball coach Andy Lopez noted the importance of two-out hitting. The UA scored nearly half its runs in the regional with two out.

Moreso, it got good pitching. Koley Kolberg earned the save in Sunday's win over Notre Dame after registering a starting victory in Friday's opener against Irvine. He replaced Sunday sensation John Meloan, who went into the ninth.

Now the pressure is off. Arizona is playing with the house's goods. What happens from here is gravy. Because of a good weekend, UA baseball has turned in a good year. But since the Cardinal and Navy is at this stage, the only Pac-10 team to advance to the SuperRegional, it might as well keep playing. Long Beach State is certainly daunting, but Arizona has nothing to lose.

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