Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

More than 5,000 greet the national champions at McKale Center

Kurt Heyer

Kurt Heyer in a T-shirt that athletic director Greg Byrne made a point to tell the crowd will go on sale Wednesday (on-line and in shops).

The national championship Arizona Wildcats baseball team arrived via bus at McKale Center, greeted by a water salute from the Tucson Fire Department.

The Wildcats departed the bus wearing their “Arizona Owns Omaha” T-shirts, capturing the moment with their own video cameras as fans snapped photos and chanted “U of A, U of A.”

The Cats made their way to the north side of McKale, entering, fittingly enough, through the Hall of Champions, eventually appearing inside, national championship trophy held aloft.

About 17 hours after defeating South Carolina 4-1 in Omaha to win the College World Series, the Arizona baseball team celebrated its fourth national championship, its first since 1986, with slightly more than 5,000 fans.

“Caught me completely off guard,” coach Andy Lopez said of the reception.

“I told my wife, ‘We’ll get here, there will be about 1,000 people, it will be 15, 30 minutes, we’ll go back and get a bite to eat.’ Oh ye of little faith, right?

“So, to the city of Tucson, I apologize. Please forgive me. … Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Mostly, it was the fans thanking the Wildcats on Tuesday afternoon because it’s been a long time since the town got this excited about college baseball. The ceremony lasted about 40 minutes, and players and coaches stuck around to sign autographs, Lopez for at least another hour.

Tucson mayor Jonathan Rothschild was among those who addressed the crowd, saying, “Tucson has always been a college baseball town.”

It might have been more accurate to say that it once was a college baseball town — and could well be on its way to being one again.

Step one was this season’s move to Hi Corbett, which at least brought the curious (and the thirsty) out to see UA baseball again. Then the Wildcats reeled in bigger crowds with their play, which resulted in a share of the Pac-12 championship and a thrilling 10-0 run through the postseason.

Robert Refsnyder

Robert Refsnyder poses with the national championship trophy Monday night in Omaha. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

“I’m pretty confident we’re starting something special here now,” said junior pitcher Kurt Heyer.

Heyer, and four other drafted juniors, are expected to start their pro careers this summer, their UA legacy being they were the foundation on which that something special can be built.

While it’s tantalizing to look ahead, Lopez also used his address to the crowd to acknowledge three people instrumental in fueling the passion Tucson had for college baseball in the 1970s and ’80s — former head coach Jerry Kindall, his longtime assistant Jim Wing, and another longtime assistant, Jerry Stitt, who succeeded Kindall as head coach and preceded Lopez.

Each was on hand for the celebration.

“I’m blessed to be part of this program, I’m blessed to be part of this community, I’m forever thankful I was offered this opportunity,” Lopez told the crowd.

Several players spoke to the crowd, with Heyer doing an uncanny impression of athletic director Greg Byrne. Shortstop Alex Mejia led the fans in doing the team’s now-famous “no doubles” sign, waving his right hand behind his head.

Rothschild also delivered one piece of news:

When the Cats convene for next season, look for the entrance into Hi Corbett to be renamed “Championship Way.”

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