Tony Arnerich played one season in Lubbock 10 years ago, but there's still some Texas Tech Red Raider running through his veins.
As the third-base coach for the University of California team going through one of the most unusual seasons in college baseball history, Arnerich was hearing plenty of barking from Texas A&M fans when the Bears and Aggies squared off Tuesday in an elimination game at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
It's barking he'd heard plenty of back in 2001 as the Red Raiders' catcher, and Arnerich wanted to quietly remind the Aggies faithful that Tech swept them that season.
"I don't know if anybody noticed, but I was in the third-base box and had my hands in the ("Guns Up") down by my side," Arnerich said. "I'm pretty sure nobody noticed but I still have that Tech flavor even though I'm a Bear now. I'm sure Tech is on our side."
Nine months ago, however, it appeared that nobody was on the Golden Bears' side.
In September of 2010, the university announced it was cutting five sports from its athletic department - men's and women's gymnastics, men's rugby, women's lacrosse and baseball.
"A lot of things start going through your mind," said Arnerich, who was a volunteer assistant for Cal for two years and is in his second season as a full-time assistant. "The thing that started going through my mind the most was our players, especially the freshmen we'd recruited. They hadn't even had an official practice yet and they're about to tell us they're cutting the program."
The coaches immediately began calling other schools trying to find places for the underclassmen to play in 2012. Arnerich said the coaches weren't concerned about themselves as much as making sure the players could continue their collegiate careers elsewhere.
But for Arnerich there was a deeper issue.
As a player for Tech, Arnerich sat out the 2000 fall practice season due to a heart condition. That heart condition, described as an insufficient aorta valve, is still with Arnerich to this day. Upon hearing the news of the program being cut one of his first thoughts was to visit his cardiologist that he hadn't seen in about six months.
The doctor told him he needed to have minor heart surgery soon and would need major heart surgery to remedy the problem permanently in the near future. Arnerich underwent the minor procedure in December and figured he would go ahead and have the major surgery in January while still afforded the benefit of health insurance.
"When they were in there doing the smaller surgery in December they took better measurements of my heart and came back and told me it wasn't quite time yet (for the major surgery)," Arnerich said. "But I almost went ahead and went through with it just so I'd have insurance. Then the doctor told me you can't make that kind of decision based on insurance, and he recommended not doing it. Imagine my stress of what we're going through with the program and finding places for these kids and then them telling me I need heart surgery."
Luckily for Arnerich - and the Bears - everything has worked out.
A second chance
All through the fall and early spring, there was an effort undertaken to try and save not only baseball but the four other sports.
In February, rumors began circulating that the school was going to back off its decision to cut the sports, so a ray of hope began to shine on the Berkeley campus. But when the announcement came, the administration left baseball and men's gymnastics on the cutting block.
The focus for the baseball team at that point, Arnerich said, turned squarely to baseball.
The Bears, Arnerich said, entered the 2011 season as a talented team, and he was confident with the starting pitching and defense. With a chip on their shoulder, the Bears played that way for the first half of the season, much like his Tech team of 2001 did in finishing third in the Big 12 with a lineup that had seven players hitting over .300. Arnerich hit .332 that year with five home runs and led the Red Raiders with 24 doubles.
Cal won 19 of their first 25 games and started 5-1 in the Pac-10.
Then, on April 8, San Francisco attorney and former Cal standout Stu Gordon announced he had helped raise more than $9 million to save baseball and men's gymnastics, and the university agreed to bring both sports back.
However, the Bears' good play started to head in the opposite direction. Cal went 13-12 in its final 25 games and went 8-13 in the Pac-10 to the end of the regular season.
"The guys played with a chip on their shoulders, but when they announced that we were back, we didn't play that well after that and people said we lost that chip," Arnerich said. "I don't believe that. We played some tough teams in the Pac-10 and just got in a bit of a rut."
That rut dropped Cal to a No. 3 seed in the Houston regional with Rice, Baylor and Alcorn State. For whatever reason, that seemed to fuel the Bears, Arnerich said.
They lost the opener to Baylor but came back to eliminate Alcorn State and the host team Owls. Cal was then forced to beat Baylor twice. Cal won once, forcing a winner-take-all match on June 6.
Cal trailed by three runs in the bottom of the ninth against Baylor ace Logan Verrett. Arnerich kept thinking about the series at Baylor in 2001 when Tech rallied for a run in the ninth in Waco to win the series finale and the series. He thought about later in 2001 when Tech forced Cal State Fullerton to a winner-take-all match but came up short. He couldn't bear that to happen again.
It didn't, aand Cal rallied for four runs to win the regional. Cal then swept Dallas Baptist in the super regional to reach the College World Series, completing a valuable lesson in perseverance.
"If you can get a team to play for something, and you've got some talent, you can do a lot more than you ever imagined," Arnerich said. "That's what coaching is, finding a way to get a team to focus on one thing and play for that. These guys have focused on each other and go out and play for each other. They've shown people what they're made of, and now we're waking up in Omaha, and it's a great feeling."
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