Editor’s Note: This article appeared on tuscon.com on Sept. 7 as part of a series written by the Arizona Daily Star as part of a series written by columnist Greg Hansen counting down the top teams in University of Arizona history. It is used with permission of Hansen and the Arizona Daily Star. The article is available here.
Thrilling win over ASU set stage for Wildcats' 1976 College World Series title
By Greg Hansen
Arizona Daily Star
Arizona State was without question the nation’s most dominant college baseball team in 1976. The most feared team, too.
The Sun Devils went 6-0 against Arizona in the regular season. They led the NCAA in home runs. They went 17-1 to win the WAC. They were ranked No. 1 the final two months of the regular season.
More impressively, the ’76 Sun Devils had 13 players who reached the major leagues, including impact players like Bob Horner, Ken Landreaux, Floyd Bannister and Ken Phelps. (Horner is an inaugural member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame from 2006 and Bannister was inducted two years later in 2008).
Yet it was Arizona that won the national championship.
"It’s like a death in the family," said ASU coach and 2007 College Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Jim Brock after losing to the Wildcats at the College World Series in Omaha.
The Sun Devils actually extended their 1976 winning streak against Arizona to 7-0 when they beat the Wildcats in the opening game of the College World Series, 7-6, thanks to a dramatic comeback in the ninth inning.
But when the bitter rivals met in a loser-goes-home elimination game a week later, Arizona broke through and won 5-1, after which UA All-American catcher Ron Hassey said: "We got the last laugh. That’s what counts. They are the guys going home. We’re staying."
ASU won 65 games in 1976, then an NCAA record. Arizona won 56, but it wasn’t a matter of "how many" as much as it was "when and where."
It was the first national championship in UA history, the first of what has become four College World Series baseball championships at Arizona. And it was not just the most dramatic but the most appreciated.
Arizona had been so overshadowed by ASU in 1976 that not enough attention was paid to the UA’s strengths.
All-American outfielder Dave Stegman hit .425 with a still-standing school record 91 runs scored and 111 hits. Hassey, of Tucson High, set a school record with 84 RBIs. The Wildcats scored 588 runs, which remains No. 4 in school history.
Pitching? The Wildcats were loaded. Craig Gioia went 15-5. Steve Powers went 12-4. Bob Chaulk was 11-2. Powers was such a talented combo player — pitching and hitting — that he was named the College World Series MVP, hitting .364 in Omaha and beating ASU with a complete game to send the heartbroken Sun Devils home before the championship game.
"There’s a great deal of satisfaction in beating ASU," said Arizona coach and 2007 College Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Kindall, who had been 8-17 against the Sun Devils in his early UA coaching career. "You can’t deny it and I don’t want to hide it."
The championship game was Arizona vs. Eastern Michigan, of all teams. EMU had future MLB Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Bob Welch and pitcher Bob Owchinko, a second-round draft pick who played 10 years in the big leagues. Welch started the title game and was relieved by Owchinko.
It didn’t matter. Arizona rolled, 7-1, which was accurately predicted by ASU’s Brock, who had said "there’s no doubt Arizona will win that game."
As it turned out, Arizona and ASU, teams from the mid-level WAC, were college baseball’s two best teams of 1976.
Arizona was talented top to bottom.
Leadoff hitter Don Zimmerman hit .364. First basemen Al Lopez of Tucson High and Ken Bolek, who shared the position, combined for 21 home runs. Shortstop Glenn Wendt and second baseman Les Pearsey both hit better than .300. Throw in the All-Americans, Hassey and Stegman, and Arizona didn’t have a light touch in its lineup.
When Kindall retired, I sat in his office and asked him to reflect on his national championship teams.
"None of them were flukes," he said. "The ’76 team kept getting better and better as the season went on and overcame one of the best ASU teams I ever saw. I’m not saying it was the best team I ever coached, but they overcame the biggest obstacle. I’ll always treasure that week in Omaha."