Arizona athletics: What are you looking forward to in 2017?

Published: Dec. 30, 2016 at 4:55 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 2, 2018 at 11:25 AM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The 2016 calendar year wasn't the best for Arizona athletics.

At the most visible level, the men's basketball team fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to 11th-seeded Wichita State, the football team suffered through a miserable 3-9 season and, most tragically, senior center Zach Hemmila died in his sleep soon after the start of fall camp.

We don't need to rehash it all, do we?

There were highlights and thrill rides, to be sure -- such as the baseball team's surprising and joy-filled run to the championship series of the College World Series -- but this story isn't about looking back. It's about looking ahead.

What are you most looking forward to in your cardinal-and-navy world in 2017? As the New Year begins, is your glass full ... half-full ... half-empty?

Here at KOLD/KMSB/, the sports crew put together our ideas about what we're most looking forward to seeing and covering in 2017. As always, your mileage may vary.

I'll start.

The Wildcats, with eight national titles from 1991 to 2007, is in a long drought, not even making it back to the College World Series in Oklahoma City since 2010.

They were close last season. They won the first game of a Super Regional at Auburn before losing the next two.

Ace pitcher Danielle O'Toole is back for her senior season. Senior third baseman Katiyana Mauga has 67 career homers, 20 away from tying the school career record. A talented five-person freshman class -- led by catcher Dejah Milipola and power-hitting middle infielder Jessie Harper -- adds punch and depth to the lineup.

"I felt really good about the fall," coach Mike Candrea told after fall practice in late October.

"This team has shown me it has all the ingredients to make a deep run. Now, we have to go out and do it. But great pitching, great hitting, great defense, great chemistry ..."

Pitching, hitting, defense, chemistry. Yeah. What else is there?

"I think this team has worked extremely hard, has a great work ethic," Candrea continued. "I think they finally understand what the represent -- representing that 'A' and what it means."

The newcomer to get the most excited about is redshirt freshman outfielder and middle-of-the-order slugger Alyssa Palomino, who missed last season because of a torn ACL. The ball flies off her bat in a way that calls to mind the great power hitters of Arizona's past.

"It's called bat speed and it's called strength," Candrea said with a smile. "Yeah, she is going to be a great addition."

Candrea preferred a small roster -- 14, 15 players -- during many of his championship seasons, but he has changed his thinking. This team has 22 players -- "quality depth," he calls it -- which leads to competitive practices in the battle for playing time.

That's a good thing.

"Truthfully, the last practice of the fall was probably the best day I've seen in a long time," Candrea said. "If that's an indication of what's ahead of us, it should be a pretty fantastic season and I'm looking forward to it."

So are we.

I asked the on-air talent to pick the thing they are most looking forward to in Arizona athletics in 2017 ...

They've got a loaded squad led by former Salpointe Lancer Krystal Quihuis, who enters her junior year after a sophomore campaign that saw four top 10 finishes, including winning the Wildcat Invitational.

I'm interested to see the development of sophomores Gigi Stoll and Haley Moore, who finished tied for second individually at the 2016 NCAA Women's Championship. Two seasons after winning the Pac-12 title, can Arizona break through and not just claim the conference title, but take it all, as it did in 1996?

He made it to college baseball's biggest stage in his first season, but largely with Andy Lopez's guys. Johnson inherited a great group and did a GREAT job with them.

I'm curious to see who becomes the ace now and how he re-fills that top part of the lineup. Lot of big-league talent left; what can he do with the returning pieces, like infielder J.J. Matijevic? Is there enough pitching depth around JC Cloney, Cameron Ming, Cody Deason and others?

The freshman class could be special. Infielder Nick Quintana and outfielder Matt Fraizer looked good in the fall. Should be fun, again.

It took what 24 years for Nick Ross to break the school high jump record in 2014 (7 feet, 6.5 inches), and now you've gotten incoming freshman Justice Summerset, who entered UA already having hit 7-2.5.

Coach Fred Harvey told me last spring he believe Summerset can immediately come in and jump 7-5, which means Ross' record is not going to be for long. Summerset is possibly the most exciting field athlete to enter UA in recent years.

As mentioned, your mileage may vary in terms of what you are most excited about potentially happening in 2017 -- well, other than the basketball team reaching the Final Four in Phoenix, of course.

Throwing a few things out there:

--The return of Arizona sophomore guard Allonzo Trier (hey, you never know).

--The arrival of the nation's No. 1 basketball recruit, DeAndre Ayton.

--A full season of a healthy football backfield.

--To that end, seeing quick-cutting running back J.J. Taylor break defender's ankles, not his own.

--Arizona winning the Territorial Cup series. Arizona State has won the head-to-head, all-sports trophy in each of the past three seasons, but the Wildcats took a 3.5-1.5 lead in the fall, including a football victory. So, hey, 2016 wasn't all bad.