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UA, Tucson Welcome the Return of Champions

The UA baseball team took a 4-1 victory over South Carolina on June 25, taking the College World Series title. Upon returning home on June 26, the team was welcomed by thousands of fans.

More than 5,000 people from across the University campus and the Tucson region attended the official NCAA Baseball National Championship Recognition at the McKale Memorial Center. Also in attendance were city government officials, including Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. "You make Tucson very proud," he said, adding that he and others with city government have begun to discuss renaming the road to Hi Corbett "Championship Way." (Photo credit: Patrick McArdle/UANews)The baseball team received a hero's welcome for returning the College World Series trophy to the UA, a first since 1986. (Photo credit: Patrick McArdle/UANews)UA head baseball coach Andy Lopez said he felt blessed to be working with such strong coaches and student-athletes and that winning the championship title was his "heart's desire." (Photo credit: Patrick McArdle/UANews)For many of the Wildcat fans who visited yesterday's event at McKale Memorial Center, the connection to the team is personal and strong. (Photo credit: Patrick McArdle/UANews)Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Wildcats Own Omaha," the baseball team returned to the UA's McKale Memorial Center, where it received red carpet treatment and was welcomed by more than 5,000 fans. (Photo credit: Patrick McArdle/UANews)

From across campus and the southern Arizona region, people arrived at McKale Memorial Center by the hundreds – whole families, high school students, small children, UA alumni and new Wildcats – to welcome their championship-winning team. 

At 1:05 p.m. on June 26, McKale's video board lit up with a live feed of the University of Arizona baseball team's chartered bus arriving on campus.

Then, the lights dimmed and flood lights were trained on the north entrance. Next, the sight of the celebrity trophy, which a team member had hoisted into the air, and the crowd erupted into chants and a standing ovation.

The team, along with head coach Andy Lopez, then descended into a sea of red, blue and flashing lights surrounded by more than 5,000 Wildcat fans – their first home appearance since winning the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

During the UA event, the official NCAA Baseball National Championship Recognition hosted by Arizona Athletics, Lopez said that at each championship, the flags of the eight final university teams are flown at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.

"They have this great tradition," Lopez said, "and every time a team is eliminated, their flag gets run down to the half pass. Every time we've been there I've told my clubs, 'Let's be the last flag standing...there is one flag still standing.'"

Arizona won its last 11 games – and 18 of its last 20 – in 2012.

UA President Eugene G. Sander attended the event and offered his congratulations to the team: "Who would have thought that what started off at Tucson, Arizona at Hi Corbett Field would have finished at Creighton in Omaha, Nebraska? I give my personal thanks."

Wildcat Robert Refsnyder, who was named Most Outstanding Player, received a standing ovation when he took the mic. "On behalf of the team, thank you for sharing this important moment with us," he said.

"It means the world to us to see the city of Tucson come out and show us some love," Refsnyder said. "The championship belongs to you as much as it belongs to us." 

Chad Manuel and his son, Zachary, were among those who arrived early at McKale to honor the team and celebrate the team. 

Zachary, who is 9, is a huge fan and also plays the sport. He spoke with bravado about getting six foul balls at different Arizona games, some of which players handed to him. For Chad Manuel, a California native who moved to Arizona in 2004, he was raised with baseball.

"I've been getting more and more into the amateur sports because I want to show him," Manuel said and nodded toward Zachary, "what it means to be part of a team."

"It seems that over the past 10 years, there has been a sort of power to the South, but we brought the national championship title back to the West, where I think it belongs."

Kelsi Ryan and Niall Strickland, who watched the championship game with Ryan's family the night prior, said they attended the event to show their support for the team. 

"They represent Arizona and Tucson, so we have to support them," said Ryan, an incoming UA elementary education major.

During Monday's game, Ryan said Strickland left the room for a moment, at which point the game looked tight. When Strickland returned, the team scored three runs.

"My family is very superstitious," Ryan said. So, for the last hour of the game, Strickland had to wait in the backyard. He obliged.

"I love Arizona," said Strickland, who also shows his pride in other ways: He has the block "A" tattooed to his right arm. Underneath it reads "championship," which also is what his name means in Gaelic.

With Arizona taking the championship crown, it is the 16th for the Pac-12 Conference, a total leading all conferences. Also for Arizona, it is the fourth College World Series and NCAA baseball title.

"It has been a long journey, but it has been well worth the wait to have the Wildcats back as champions," said Brian Jeffries, Arizona Athletics broadcasting director and the Voice of the Wildcats.

"Some say it was because of Hi Corbett that they won the championship. I disagree a little bit," Jeffries said.

"A stadium doesn't win a championship. Players and coaches win a championship," he said. "A team reflects its coach and, over 11 years, Lopez has brought outstanding teams and great players to Arizona. This year, he brought a national championship to Arizona."

Rheannah Coronado, who arrived with a group of high school students, said she never had a doubt that the UA team would take this year's title.

"I knew they were going to win," Coronado, 14, said, adding that her favorite players are Alex Mejia, Konner Wade and Robert Refsnyder.

For Jason and Delaiah Wood, both members of the Tohono O'odham Nation, their connection to the team and the UA spans years and is very personal.

Diagnosed in 1998 with a condition that affects her skin and muscular system, Delaiah Wood has received multiple treatments at The University of Arizona Medical Center.

"Over those nine years, UMC was our home and, sometimes, the the players would come," said her father, Jason Wood.

Before her illness, Delaiah Wood said she was actively involved in sports. "I can't play, but what I can do is watch them, and we hope for the best for them," she said, adding that he plans to one day attend UA to study toward becoming a pediatrician. 

Like Ryan, Strickland and the Woods, others said they support the team not only because the Wildcats represent the city and the state, but because they have watched the team struggle, then grow and thrive. 

"Who would have thought we would have made it? This team has really transformed and it was phenomenal watching them come together," Steve Button said.

Button said he also feels a personal connection to the team because he attends the same church as the coach: "I hope this leads to a good recruiting class because we have a phenomenal team and coach who is just a really good person."

Members of the team were grateful for the show of the support, and others spoke during the event to give their thanks.

"This wouldn't be possible without you," said Arizona pitcher Wade. "We're proud of the fans we have."

James Farris also said, "Without you, we wouldn't be here."

Joey Rickard said, "Hopefully, this year is the start of something special. We look forward to the next year when we will be defending our title."

Also in reflecting on the championship win, coach Lopez said it has been in his "heart's desire" to take the championship title.

"I have been blessed to have good coaches and good players and a wife who allows me to do this job," Lopez said, also thanking supporters across the city, within the athletics division and also past coaches.

"I am so honored," Lopez said. "I am blessed to be part of this program and this community. We will do the best we can year in and year out. We are part of Arizona baseball and part of Tucson."

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