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Arizona Wildcats: Top 12 stories in 2012

Brigetta Barrett

Brigetta Barrett celebrates winning the Olympic silver medal in the women’s high jump. Read on to see where that lands in the University of Arizona’s top sports stories of 2012. Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

We’re in the final week of the year, and no big news is expected out of the Arizona Wildcats.

The football team played in the first bowl game of the season and the men’s basketball team is off until Jan. 3 … so now is the time to look back at a rich 2012 for UA athletics.

The athletic department’s top storylines are a mix of season-long team success, postseason prowess, individual accomplishments and off-field news.

Here is what we came up with :

12. Sean Miller lands a point guard

Consider this the whopping of a topping on a talented recruiting class, rated among the top three in the nation. The dismissal of point guard Josiah Turner was addition by subtraction, but what coach Sean Miller needed was actual addition by addition to round out his 2012-13 team. He got that with Lyons, an immediately-eligible graduate transfer who originally had been recruited to Xavier by Miller. Lyons, who picked Arizona over Kentucky in early May, is still adjusting to a full-time point guard role, but he already has displayed his value with a game-winning drive vs. Florida and his go-ahead free throws late in the victory over San Diego State.

11. Excellence in the pool

First-year coach Eric Hansen had the Wildcats right back in their usual place among the national elite. The men’s team finished fourth at the NCAA Championships, with national titles for Austen Thompson (400 individual medley), Kevin Cordes (100 breast), Cory Chitwood (200 back), diver Ben Grado and the 200 medley relay team. Chitwood won his third national title in the 200 back. The women’s team produced 11 All-Americans and was fifth nationally, its ninth consecutive top five finish at the NCAAs.

10. Mejia magic

With an infectious smile, a vacuum for a glove and what coach Andy Lopez called “intangibles that are off the charts,” junior shortstop Alex Mejia was selected the Pac-12 Player of the Year and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Mejia, who hit .357 for the national champs, became the first Wildcat to be the conference player of the year since Trevor Crowe in 2005. Mejia worked his way from lightly-recruited prospect to a fourth-round pick of the St. Louis Cardinals. “He’s been everything and more than we ever asked for,” Lopez said in the spring. “I’m really happy for him and proud.”

Alex Mejia

Alex Mejia shares a light moment with an umpire during the championship series of the College World Series. Photo by Bruce Thorson-US PRESSWIRE

9. Hello, Hi Corbett

The decision of athletic director Greg Byrne to move the baseball team off campus to Tucson’s venerable minor-league/spring training ballpark wasn’t met with his unanimous approval, but it worked out better than imagined. Arizona drew an average of 2,628 fans for 40 home dates — the third-best average in school history — and had 5,677 for a May 26 game against Arizona State. That was UA’s best single-game attendance in 32 years. The attendance and the improved facilities allowed Arizona to host postseason play for the first time since 1992.

“There is no way that we do what we did this year if we’re not at Hi Corbett with the atmosphere,” coach Andy Lopez said. “I’m so thankful that the community has come out and supported us.” For the first time in a long time, Arizona baseball is a destination.

8. Titles for Lalang

Sophomore Lawi Lalang had a record-setting season, winning NCAA indoor championships at 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters. He set school records in both of those events, as well as the mile, establishing a college record for 5K. Lalang went on to win conference outdoor titles at 1,500 meters and 5K, earning first-team All-America honors in the latter. In the fall, he earned Pac-12 Male Athlete of the Year honors for cross country; Lalang had been 10-0 in cross country races in his UA career before finishing third in the NCAA Championships in November. Still, hardly any Arizona athlete had a better year than Lalang.

7. Foles breaks the ice

Arizona finally erased a stunning and unwelcome drought that saw a 39-year gap — to the day — that an ex-Wildcat quarterback threw a pass in the NFL. Nick Foles, a third-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles, made his debut on Nov. 11, stepping in for an injured Michael Vick. He went on to make six starts before a broken hand forced him out of the season-finale. Foles completed 161 of 265 passes (60.8 percent) for 1,699 yards, with six touchdowns and five interceptions in his rookie season. Will Matt Scott follow him into the NFL in 2013?

6. Perfect, so far

This is an ongoing storyline, but the start of the 2012-13 season couldn’t have gone any better for the Arizona men’s basketball team. The Cats went 12-0 through the non-conference portion of their schedule, coming up with a pair of thrilling one-point victories in their two marquee games — vs. Florida and against San Diego State in the championship game of the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu on Christmas. At No. 3 in the AP poll, Arizona has its best ranking in nine years and has matched its best start to a season since the 1987-88 squad. It all sets the table of high expectations for the next three months (and possibly a little bit longer).

Nick Johnson

Nick Johnson celebrates a 3-point shot against Florida. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

5. RichRod’s first season

Eight victories, including a bowl win, in Rich Rodriguez’s first season? Just about everyone would have signed up for that before the 2012 season. Rodriguez fashioned a school-record-setting offense (526.15 yards per game) behind a no-huddle attack led by senior quarterback Matt Scott and All-American running back Ka’Deem Carey. A young, thin, banged-up defense merely held on most of the time, but it came up with key stops, too, as the Wildcats posted victories over Oklahoma State, Washington and preseason No. 1 USC, all teams that spent time in the national rankings. Given Rodriguez’s success on the field, his public relations off of it, and the new facilities to be completed in 2013, fans have ample reasons to be optimistic about the future of Arizona football.

4. 12-15-2012: Bear Down Saturday

What a day. Across two cities, two sports and about six hours on ESPN, Arizona pulled off two of the most thrilling feel-good comebacks in recent memory. First up, the football team in the New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque. The Wildcats were down 10, without timeouts, with about two minutes left … and Nevada had the ball inside the UA 10-yard line. Arizona held the Wolf Pack to a field goal, drove for a quick touchdown, recovered an on-side kick, scored another TD in three plays and then sealed the game with an interception for a 49-48 victory.

Later that night in Tucson, the Arizona basketball team was down six points to fifth-ranked Florida with just under a minute to go, but climbed back by forcing three turnovers in 16 seconds (and help from the Gators’ Kenny Boynton missing the front end of a one-and-one with 21 seconds to go). Mark Lyons drove to the basket for the game-winning shot with 7.1 seconds left as Arizona won 65-64.

Ka'Deem Carey

Ka’Deem Carey is the first first-team All-American running back in school history. Photo by Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

3. Ka’Boom!

Running back Ka’Deem Carey was having a very nice season … and then the game against Colorado on Nov. 10 launched the sophomore into an entirely different stratosphere. He rushed for a Pac-12 record 366 yards that day (on only 25 carries), followed up with 204 yards at Utah and rushed for 172 yards in each of the final two games against Arizona State and Nevada.

Carey’s late surge gave him a school-record 1,929 rushing yards, a school-record 23 rushing touchdowns and made him the 11th consensus All-American in school history — the first to be chosen as an exclusively offensive player. With the bulk of bowl games to come, he has a comfortable lead as the nation’s leading rusher at 148.38 yards per game.

“Ka’Deem really, really loves football,” coach Rich Rodriguez said. “The way he practices, the way he runs, the way he prepares, it’s just infectious. Every game is like a holiday to him.”

2. Precious medal

While her schoolmates were busy competing against the best in college, juniors Brigetta Barrett and Georganne Moline were taking on the best in the world. Barrett, the always-bubbly high jumper who won NCAA indoor and outdoor championships in 2011 and 2012, qualified for the U.S. Olympic team and then stunned the competition in London. She posted a personal best of 6-8 to earn silver, becoming the first U.S. athlete to win a medal in the women’s high jump in 24 years. She will be on the world stage for years to come (and look for her to sing the national anthem before the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale on Jan. 3). Moline, meanwhile, reached the Olympic final of the 400 hurdles in her first international competition, setting a personal record while finishing fifth.

1. Champs

Arizona was expected, as usual, to have a nice baseball team. But it all came together beautifully for coach Andy Lopez, including the energizing move to Hi Corbett Field (see No. 9 on this list).

The Wildcats won a share of the Pac-12 title for the first time in 20 years and then rolled through the postseason behind the indefatigable starting pitching of Kurt Heyer, Konner Wade and James Farris, the joy of shortstop Alex Mejia and a relentless lineup in which everyone contributed. Arizona won its three regional games by a score of 47-10, dispatched St. John’s in the super regional and then won the critical opening game of the College World Series 4-3 over Florida State in 12 innings. After that, Arizona allowed only five runs in the next four games, sweeping the best-of-three championship series against two-time defending champ South Carolina. It was Arizona’s first College World Series title since 1986 and the school’s 18th team championship.

Said coach Andy Lopez: “When your best players are your best human beings, it’s going to be a good year. It’s been a great year for us because my best players are my best human beings. … And that’s a real deadly combination when you suit up as a team.”

Head coach Andy Lopez and athletic director Greg Byrne celebrate with the NCAA baseball trophy. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

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