OMAHA, Neb. — Arizona coach Andy Lopez thought he had the makings of a national championship team four years ago.
Better late than never.
Arizona ended South Carolina’s two-year run of dominance at the College World Series with a 4-1 victory on Monday night, delivering the long-awaited national title to the coach who took over Arizona’s downtrodden program 11 years ago.
Brandon Dixon’s tie-breaking double started a three-run ninth inning for Arizona, and the Wildcats (48-17) won their first title since 1986.
Lopez figured it would come in 2008, when a team that started the season ranked No. 1 lost in the super regionals at Miami. Lopez still talks of the disappointment of that season.
The hurt only got worse when his 2009 squad failed to make the national tournament. The last two years ended in regionals.
“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. “This goes to out to coach Lopez and everyone involved in the program, and without (athletic director) Greg Byrne this wouldn’t be possible.”
James Farris and Mathew Troupe combined to limit the Gamecocks (49-20) to three hits as the Wildcats won their fourth title overall. The others came in 1976 and 1980.
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.
“When I saw him hit that ball, I knew it was fair,” Refsnyder said.
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.
“I was just trying to get a hit, because I knew they would be big insurance runs,” Gilbert said.
South Carolina 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 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.
The 2010 and 2011 seasons ended in regionals. The Wildcats won 18 of their last 20 games this season, including their last 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 Trent 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.
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 when Dantzler short-armed a throw into the dirt after picking up Johnny Field’s two-out grounder. Price escaped, getting Alex Mejia to fly out to center on his next pitch.
South Carolina took its turn threatening in the bottom half. Greiner was hit with a pitch, and Chase Vergason tried to move him to second with a sacrifice. But third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean picked up the ball and made a tough throw to second to get the lead runner.
Vergason ended up on third when he stole second as Evan Marzilli swung at strike three, with Moore’s throw sailing into center field. It was the first steal against the Wildcats in the CWS.
Lopez, who had expressed doubts about his bullpen all week, called on Troupe to relieve Farris. The freshman right-hander got ahead 0-2 on Joey Pankake, then ran the count full before catching the freshman looking at strike three.
Troupe pumped his right fist, adjusted his glasses and then trotted to his dugout after the biggest strikeout of his career.
For the second straight night Arizona shut down a South Carolina team that struggled offensively after beating Florida 7-3 in its CWS opener.
Konner Wade limited the Gamecocks to six hits in a complete-game, 5-1 victory in Game 1 on Sunday.
South Carolina entered Game 2 with a .197 batting average (30 for 152) over its previous five games, a stretch in which it scored just 11 runs.
CWS NOTEBOOK: The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff came to Omaha on business and sneaked in some pleasure at TD Ameritrade Park on Monday night.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey likes his baseball, and he said it was his good fortune that the College World Series was going on at the same time he had a visit scheduled to the U.S. Strategic Command south of Omaha. He was accompanied by his wife, Deanie.
“This is America’s game. This is college sports,” Dempsey said. “I’m a bigger fan of college sports than pro sports.”
Dempsey threw out the first pitch at the Yankees-Nationals game in Washington on June 15 and said he tries to catch as many games as he can. He grew up near New York City and said he’s a lifelong Yankees fan.
Dempsey spoke with coaches Andy Lopez of Arizona and Ray Tanner of South Carolina before Game 2 of the CWS finals.
“They both are aware of the fact they can play this game because men and women the same age as their own team, the same age as the kids playing baseball, are out there right about now walking out of operating bases in Afghanistan or flying off a tarmac in Qatar or steaming away from home port in Norfolk to do the nation’s bidding.
“They thank me for their service, but I thank them for thanking the service men and women they come across.”
Demspey noted that that both CWS finalists come from “military-friendly” parts of the country. Fort Huachuca is near Tucson, Ariz., and Fort Jackson is in Columbia, S.C.
“Both organizations embrace service men and women,” Dempsey said, “so I have a lot of time for both of them.”
Dempsey played college lacrosse at Army, but only dabbled in baseball as a youngster.
“The curveball kind of freaked me out and I used to bail out too aggressively,” he said, “so I never caught on as a baseball player. But I do love the game.”
LET’S DO IT AGAIN: If Arizona right fielder Robert Refsnyder homers in one game, there’s a decent chance he’ll homer again in the next one.
Refsnyder went deep in back-to-back games for the third time this season when he homered against South Carolina on Sunday. He also hit a homer in his previous game, against Florida State.
Refsnyder also homered in consecutive games against Stanford in March and against California in May.
The long ball in Game 1 of the CWS finals got Arizona out to an early 2-0 lead.
“I was fortunate enough to run into it,” Refsnyder said. “Sometimes when you close your eyes and swing really hard, good things happen.”
MARVELOUS MEJIA: Arizona shortstop Alex Mejia has turned in splendid defensive performances throughout the College World Series. No play was bigger than the double play he started in the first inning of Game 1.
South Carolina’s Joey Pankake reached on an error to start the game. Evan Marzilli sent a hard grounder up the middle that Mejia stopped with a diving nab. Mejia backhanded a flip to second baseman Trent Gilbert, whose throw to first beat Marzilli.
Konner Wade went on to pitch a complete game in the 5-1 win. Mejia downplayed the importance of the play.
“It takes them out of a big inning,” Mejia said. “But the way he pitches and the way he’s been pitching, I feel safe in allowing those two runners to get on because he’s done such a tremendous job. I don’t think that play would have mattered too much, because he’s just spot on.”