Published November 20, 2014
Andy Lopez finally won his national championship with Arizona.
The Wildcats ended South Carolina's two-year run of dominance at the College World Series with a 4-1 victory on Monday night, rewarding Lopez for persevering through the hard times that came with rebuilding the downtrodden program he took over 11 years ago.
Lopez thought he had a title-caliber team in 2008, but the Wildcats lost a crushing three-game super regional at Miami that he laments to this day.
He was devastated again in 2009 when his team failed to make the national tournament.
A strong recruiting class two years ago formed the core of the team that won Arizona's first national championship since 1986, and fourth overall.
"They've just been a joy," said Lopez, flanked by his key players. "I mean, how many times have I told you I love suiting up with you guys? Said it today before the game. And I really do, I like suiting up with young guys that go to class, go to study hall, hustle on the field, clean up the clubhouse on their own.
"I'm extremely, extremely fortunate to be in this profession and work with young people like this."
Arizona used strong pitching performances on consecutive nights to sweep the CWS finals. James Farris, who hadn't pitched since June 3, and Mathew Troupe combined to limit the Gamecocks to three hits a night after Konner Wade threw his third straight complete game in a 5-1 win.
Brandon Dixon's tie-breaking double started a three-run ninth inning for Arizona (48-17) on Monday.
Dixon, who entered the game as a defensive replacement in the sixth inning, sent a grounder down the third-base line past LB Dantzler's outstretched glove for his first hit of the CWS.
Tyler Webb relieved Matt Price (5-5), and Trent Gilbert drove in his second and third runs of the game with a two-out single that broke open the game.
"Coach Lopez means the world to us, and we're so happy we brought joy back to his life in coaching," CWS Most Outstanding Player Robert Refsnyder said.
Refsnyder, one of four juniors who earned All-Pac 12 honors this season, said he knew the disappointment in 2008 and 2009 took a toll on Lopez.
"You could tell that he was fed up with baseball and trying to teach young people to go to class and study hall and take care of your business off the field," Refsnyder said. "You could see his frustration. But Lopez gave us, gave myself and the junior class this year, the tools to be successful."
South Carolina (49-20) had been trying to become the first team since the Southern California dynasty of the early 1970s to win three national titles in a row.
"We battled as hard as we could, but they did a little bit better than we did," Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner said. "Though we're disappointed tonight, I'm not disappointed in my players. We battled awful hard. We made a run, got to the postseason and got back out here. We got in the losers' bracket and got back to the finals."
Lopez, who won a national championship at Pepperdine in 1992, became the second coach to win a Division I baseball title at two schools. Augie Garrido was the first, winning three at Cal State Fullerton and two at Texas.
Lopez took over a program that had gone to the NCAA regionals just once in the previous eight years. He came within that one win of getting to the CWS in 2008, then took a step backward in 2009 when the Wildcats didn't make the national tournament.
"On paper the '08 team is probably as good, if not better, because of their bullpen," Lopez said. "But it's not the first team that wins. I came here in '98 as the No. 1 seed with Florida, and the seventh seed in '92, and won in '92 but didn't win in '98.
"It's not the best team that wins, it's the hottest team, and these guys got hot at the right time."
The Wildcats won 18 of their last 20 games, including their final 11.
Down three runs in the bottom of the ninth, South Carolina loaded the bases against Troupe (6-1) on two walks and a single.
With one out, Tanner English sent a line drive up the middle that second baseman Gilbert gloved. Gilbert rushed to the bag to double off Dantzler, but Dantzler got back just in time.
Grayson Greiner then flied out to right fielder Refsnyder on a 2-1 pitch, sparking a rush of Arizona players to the middle of the field for the celebratory pile-on.
"We were extremely fortunate to get away with this victory," Lopez said.
Dixon, batting .242 for the season, had been 0 for 7 with three strikeouts in his previous CWS at-bats. As usual, he replaced first baseman Joseph Maggi in the middle innings and got his opportunity in the ninth after Refsnyder singled leading off the ninth.
Farris and Michael Roth engaged in a pitcher's duel through the first seven innings.
Farris left with two out in the eighth after allowing one run on two hits.
"Farris had a great start for Arizona," South Carolina's Adam Matthews said. "He was working away most of the night. Of course we wanted to hit better, but you have got to give credit where credit's due."
Arizona scored in the third after Maggi doubled leading off, moved to third on Riley Moore's sacrifice and scored on Gilbert's groundout.
It looked as if the one run just might stand for Farris and the Wildcats.
The Gamecocks had only two baserunners through six innings: Christian Walker walked in the first and Dantzler singled in the fourth.
Farris walked Walker again to start the seventh, though, and Walker went to third on Adam Matthews' single to right. Walker scored the tying run on Kyle Martin's grounder back to Farris.
Arizona had runners at first and third with two outs in the eighth but couldn't push a run across. South Carolina took its turn threatening in the bottom half and came up empty.
For the second straight night Arizona shut down a South Carolina team that struggled offensively after beating Florida 7-3 in its CWS opener. South Carolina batted .181 (33 of 182) over its last six games at the CWS.