Greg Hansen: Wildcats’ big spring forward made for a sports season to savor – Purdue Exponent

On the first day of spring, Sunday, March 20, Arizona’s athletic department was a mess. OK, maybe not a mess, maybe not a wreck, but to use a softer term, it was in disarray.

And that doesn’t include the financial crush of unrealized ticket and TV revenue related to COVID-19.

The sting from firing football coach Kevin Sumlin, paying him about $7.5 million to go away, and losing 70-7 to ASU was a psychological and financial blow like few, if any, in a century of UA sports.

Worse, the school was in the process of a decision to fire basketball coach Sean Miller, pay him more than $1 million to exit the premises, and start over.

This is what disarray looks like: the double firing tactic was almost unprecedented in the UA’s years in the Pac-12. Only once, in 2002-03, had a conference school fired its basketball and football coaches in the same academic year. UCLA dismissed basketball’s Steve Lavin and football’s Bob Toledo three months apart.

On the first weekend of spring, 2021, Arizona’s ongoing sports were anything but encouraging. It pointed to a lost year, perhaps the worst in the school’s modern athletic history. Consider:

• Adia Barnes’ women’s basketball team had not played for 16 days after being eliminated from the Pac-12 tournament, limited to 49 points by UCLA.

• Mike Candrea’s softball team was swept in its Pac-12 opening weekend, scoring a mere three runs at Washington and hitting a cumulative .163.

• Laura Ianello’s women’s golf team was idle, but had uncharacteristically failed to win any of its first four events. It placed just fifth in its own Arizona Invitational.

• Jim Anderson’s men’s golf team walked off the Tucson National course that weekend in fifth place at its own NIT Invitational, 19 strokes out of first place.

• Jay Johnson’s baseball team lost 11-3 at UCLA on the first day of spring, losing its opening Pac-12 series and dropping to 13-6 overall.

• Clancy Shields’ men’s tennis team, which had opened the season 15-1, was swept on a first-weekend-of-spring trip, losing to Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas.

Plus, the most prominent athlete on campus, diver Delaney Schnell, did not win either of the two events she entered at the NCAA finals that weekend, finishing fourth in the 1-meter event and second in the platform finals.

Yet 90 days later, on the final day of spring, all of that had changed, leading some in the community to ask if 2021 was the best finish to a UA sports season in history.

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Arizona catcher Dejah Mulipola, center, high-fives third baseman Malia Martinez  during player intros before their Women’s College World Series game against Alabama earlier this month. The Wildcats made their 24th WCWS appearance under coach Mike Candrea, who retired at the end of the season.

In the course of three months:

• Barnes’ basketball team stunned No.1 seed UConn and reached the NCAA championship game.

• Candrea’s softball team blew through the NCAA Super Regional and landed at the Women’s College World Series for only the second time in 10 years.

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• Ianello’s golf team finished tied for third at the NCAA championships.

• Anderson’s golf team won the school’s first Pac-12 men’s golf title since 2004.

• Johnson’s baseball team won the Pac-12 championship and played in the College World Series for just the fourth time since 1989.

• Shields’ tennis team reached the Sweet 16, its most successful finish since 1972.

And Schnell won the Olympic Trials in both platform diving and Synchro Pairs.

Not only that, the coaches UA president Robert C. Robbins and athletic director hired to replace Sumlin and Miller — football’s Jedd Fisch and basketball’s Tommy Lloyd — have restored an energy and connection to the community that had been lost for a few years.

Anyone remember Gronk catching a football dropped from a helicopter?

A sports season that once looked to be on course to be an unmitigated failure was anything but. Talk about going out on a high note.

This was reminiscent of the 1990s, when the UA’s athletic department regularly finished in the top 10 of what is now called the Director’s Cup.

When the Director’s Cup began in 1993-94, Arizona finished No. 6 overall. Over the next seven years it finished, in order, No. 4, No. 7, No. 6, No. 6, No. 9, No. 8, No. 5. It has not since been in the top 10, and has averaged 37th overall since 2008.

The Wildcats entered the spring (including basketball results) ranked No. 38 nationally, about average. Final standings will be released at the conclusion of the College World Series. It’s likely Arizona could finish as high as 15th.

But it’s not the best spring season in school history. The numbers suggest that Arizona hit its peak in the spring of 1992.

In ’92, Arizona won the NCAA men’s golf championship. It won Pac-10 championships in women’s golf, softball and baseball. Both the softball team and the women’s golf teams finished No. 2 in the NCAA finals. Golfer Annika Sorenstam won the national title.

What’s more, UA tennis players Alix Creek and Danielle Scott won the Pac-10 doubles title, the first and only pair in school history to do so, and Creek won the singles title, also the first and only UA women’s tennis player to do so.

To cap the historic ’92 spring season, UA distance runner Marc Davis won the NCAA championship in the steeplechase and Tanya Hughes won the NCAA high jump, as the women’s track team finished second in the Pac-10, its highest-ever finish.

That was a spring sports season to remember.

In 2021, the UA’s finish to the sports year went from bitter to sweet in the space of 90 days, making it a year you won’t soon forget.

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