Norwin graduate Matijevic blossoms for No. 7 Arizona
Arizona baseball coach Jay Johnson admits he shouldn't play favorites, and his ability to maintain impartiality with a loaded roster is part of the program's success.
Yet, Johnson said his impartiality is tested every time Norwin grad JJ Matijevic enters the batter's box.
“He exemplifies work ethic. There's no doubt he sets the standard for our team,” Johnson said Saturday, following Arizona's 18-4 home win against Pac-12 rival Oregon. Matijevic went 4 for 5 with his 21st double, three runs, two RBIs and a stolen base in the victory.
“He's got a team-first attitude. He puts the focus on the team. I can't wait to see where he goes after this, but, make no mistake, he can play for me as long as he wants. I'm proud of his development.”
A hard-hitting, left-handed infielder/designated hitter, Matijevic is the centerpiece of No. 7 Arizona's lineup. The 6-foot, 199-pound junior arrived in Tucson as a promising prospect, one of the better position players the WPIAL has produced in recent years.
He has become one of the best players in college baseball.
Matijevic earned Pac-12 Player of the Week honors last week, but the accolades didn't end there. USA Baseball on Wednesday released its 40-player midseason watch list for the Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the nation's top amateur player. Matijevic made the list.
“I'm trying to get better every day, but both of those things are very humbling achievements,” Matijevic said. “I'm proud of how much I've improved.”
No player in the Pac-12 is having a better offensive season.
Matijevic, an avid golfer who played football and basketball at Norwin, leads the conference in batting average (.418), slugging percentage (.685), hits (61), RBIs (42), doubles (21) and total bases (100). He ranks second in the conference in runs (40) and home runs (six).
He leads Division I in doubles.
“Every single day, whether I show up early or stay late to put in extra reps in the weight room, I'm working hard to get better,” Matijevic said. “I grew up around hard work.”
Matijevic's father, Joe, is a fire chief and disc jockey. His mother, Erin Fajt, is a dedicated distance runner. That instilled work ethic is something Johnson quickly noticed.
“The first time I saw him hit, I was impressed with the tools,” Johnson said. “To be a great hitter, he had a long way to go. He was willing to do what it takes to get there.”
With the help of the Arizona coaching staff, Matijevic overhauled his swing. Gone is the high leg kick and antsy hands. In its place is a smooth, squared-up approach that has helped Matijevic generate more power and see the ball better.
The process wasn't quick or easy. Matijevic batted .238 as a freshman and .287 last season. Constant reps and time spent in the prestigious Cape Cod Summer League were beneficial.
Now, he hopes to see Arizona (26-9) win the conference and return to the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats advanced to last year's championship series, which they lost to Coastal Carolina.
“Those are our goals, but you can't get ahead of yourself. You really have to go a game at a time,” Matijevic said. “You have to have that mentality that you want to be better every day. If we do that, hopefully we'll be Pac-12 champions and get back to the championship.”
Matijevic was drafted by the Boston Red Sox, his favorite professional team, in the 22nd round while at Norwin. These days, he's projected as a second- or third-round selection this year.
Johnson sees a player ready for the next challenge.
“No doubt I'll be rooting for him wherever he goes,” Johnson said. “He's a talented kid who's passionate about baseball. He's done the things he needs to do to succeed.”
Mike Kovak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MikeKovak.