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Statesman Q&A: Texas' Zach Zubia on 2021 expectations, David Pierce and his favorite homer

Texas' Zach Zubia readies for a pitch during a game against Cal State Fullerton early last season at UFCU Disch-Falk Field. The veteran first baseman is back for his fifth season with the Longhorns.

The last time Texas fans saw Zach Zubia, the first baseman was hitting a home run.

Zubia went deep during the third inning against Abilene Christian on March 11, 2020. It was Zubia's team-leading third home run of the young season, and Texas improve to 14-3 with the 9-1 victory at UFCU Disch-Falk Field.

That game, however, was the last game of the season for Texas. Two days later, the season was shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Weather permitting, the Longhorns — ranked No. 9 in the country by D1Baseball — will open their season in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown in Arlington. Texas is scheduled to face three top-10 teams over three days: No 7 Mississippi State on Saturday, No. 8 Arkansas on Sunday and No. 6 Ole Miss on Monday.

Related:Winter storms delay the start of Texas' 2021 baseball season

This will be Zubia's fifth season. He's one of only three starters left from Texas' 2018 College World Series team. He recently discussed a wide range of topics, including his expectations for this season:

How ready is this team to get back on the field?

I think that this team is probably the most prepared team that I've been on since I've been here. This team is full of maturity, it's full of dedication, it's just full of hard work. I think that's also a credit to our coaching staff and our staff in general. We've done a really good job with the COVID-19 world that we're living in right now. I think it's a really focused, a really driven and a really motivated team to win. I'm very excited to see what shows out (in the season opener).

Texas' Zach Zubia connects for a solo home run against Abilene Christian on March 11, 2020. It was the Longhorns' final game of the season; two days later, the season was called off because of the pandemic.

What did Texas fans miss out on seeing with the 2020 team?

I think that was a team full of life. It's really awesome to see most of that team back. I think it was a team full of excitement, full of fireworks, full of surprises. I think that it was a team that could have gone a long way. I've been on a team that went to Omaha, but I think that (2020) team was far more talented and far more prepared. It just seemed like we had the right pieces in the right places and it was a really, really exciting year to a Longhorn fan. I would say the same for this year as well.

How did you spend your offseason and summer? 

That summer was kind of crazy. I stayed at home for most of March and April, just because of quarantine rules. I had a gym to go to. That was pretty much the only place that I could go besides my house. My parents were, as much as everyone else was, pretty strict on the COVID-19 rules and I think that was a good thing for me because it shouldn't have been taken lightly. I stayed at home. It was a lot of at-home workouts. It was a lot of Zoom calls with the team and with guest speakers. I think those were actually very beneficial to us because we were able to learn from some of the best. I think you see those lessons that we learned on the Zoom calls being implemented daily within our team. It's been really fun to see those lessons, those words come to fruition within our team.

Was it tough to get better this offseason since summer ball wasn't an option and campus was closed? You had access to a gym, but was it tough to improve? 

I would say yes, but at the same time, if you really want to get better, you're gonna find a way. I think that's something that we have on this team, is that everyone on this team wants to get better. The default answer would be yes, just because your resources are limited. At the same time, we found ways. I think that was probably one of the more beneficial summers for me personally just because you're not playing every day in summer ball and you're just working on your craft, you're working on ways to get better. It just takes one day where you find something new within yourself, within your swing, within your fielding, within your throwing that you're able to take off and run with it. I think that I saw some of that this summer for sure.

Had you wanted to, you could have signed as an undrafted free agent even though the money wasn't great? Did you consider going pro?

I considered it, for sure. It's definitely a dream of mine to play professional baseball and it's definitely something I want to pursue as a professional career. But with this coaching staff that we have here, the coaching that you get and the lessons you learn are so much more valuable than a $20,000 contract to me.

I thought that we have the right kids to win. I've always said I want to win a national championship and I thought this team has a really, really good shot at winning one. I thought I can't pass up the opportunity to have a shot at Omaha one more time. I thought with this team it's the right team in the right place at the right time. That was really what led me to come back is that opportunity to go and get one more crack at the natty.

Texas first baseman Zach Zubia is one of three starters still around from the Longhorns' 2018 College World Series team. "It's just really cool to see the different types of leadership we have," he said.

Texas has an interesting dynamic: Between you, Austin (Todd), DJ (Petrinsky) and Tristan (Stevens), you definitely have an old-guy crew. Will that veteran leadership play a role this season?

It's funny you bring that up because even though we have a lot of old guys, we also have a lot of young guys that have stepped up as leaders this year, too. It's been really cool to see people like Trey (Faltine) and people like Silas (Ardoin) step up and even we have Mikey, (graduate transfer) Mike Antico. He's a new guy, technically, but he's my age and he's stepped up as a leader too.

It's just really cool to see the different types of leadership we have amongst our clubhouse. I think that's what's going to make us a good team this year. We have so many different people who are so versatile in what they do and what they say. It's just you literally have about 15 different guys on our team that are so powerful with what they say and what they do that there's so many different things that can really go on within our team and there's so many different people that can help in so many different things.

How is balancing your master's program for marketing with baseball?

It's a different type of balancing with a master's degree. With a master's degree, it's been a lot more group work, it's been a lot more group-oriented because it's trying to gear you towards the workplace a little bit more, working in groups, working in small teams. It's been different. It was a big adjustment period in the fall for sure, but it's been a very valuable two semesters for me. I think that it's very helpful. It's been difficult at times, but at the same time so worth it to me. I truly value the University of Texas and not only its athletics, but its academics as well. I get my master's in marketing from McCombs so it's the best of both worlds for me. You get to play at the highest level in sports and you get some of the best academics in the country so you can't beat that.

What do you think this team can accomplish?

I think the sky's the limit, if I'm being completely honest with you. There's just a different buzz. It's a team that's going to really come out to play every single day. I think we've got some hungry people on our team that are ready to really show not only what they can do but what this team can do. There's some pride around being a Longhorn this year and that's something I really enjoy seeing with this team. There's a pride when we put on that steer head, when we put on that Texas across our chest. It's getting me pretty pumped up to go play right now. Like I said, the sky's the limit. Our expectations are high and there's no other way I would want it.

What are this team's strengths?

We're going to be able to score in multiple ways on offense. I think that's one of the biggest things for us, is that we have speed, we've always had speed, but we have power this year, we have guys who can handle the bat really well, we have guys who obviously can run, and we have guys who can execute, we have guys who can play small ball, we have guys who can do everything. That's something that gets me really fired up, is that one through nine, there's not gonna be a real chink in the armor. It's going to be a very versatile lineup, it's going to be a very solid lineup, a very one-through-nine sound, just ready-to-go, grinder type people. It's gonna be really fun to watch that in action.

Our pitching is gonna be really good, too. We've got a lot of guys that can come out of pen. We've got a lot of guys who can start. Like I said, on offense we're very versatile, on the pitching side we're very versatile too. Texas always takes pride in its defense, it's been a historical fact here, but we're going to play defense. We're gonna take it, we're gonna throw it and we're gonna field it.

Of the new guys on the team or the young guys who had smaller roles last season, who is going to take that next step?

One of the guys that really sticks out to me is (second-year catcher) Silas Ardoin. The kid's work ethic is unmatched. He's always looking at ways to get better and he's always asking the older guys questions. He's always asking DJ about how to get better. He's always hanging out with DJ on what he does catching-wise and then he's always asking guys what they're looking for hitting-wise. He's taken a step in a very mature direction this year. It's gonna be really exciting to see him get to play a lot this year.

Then another guy, I mean he's an incoming guy, is Mike (Antico). Mike's a whole new player. I'm really glad we got him and no one else did because he's gonna be really, really helpful to our team this year. I think that he is someone that can really wreak havoc on a lot of teams this year.

You've been to Omaha before. What does it take to get to Omaha?

I think one of the things that's gonna really help us go to Omaha this year is going to be the ability to just take every day with a new mentality. Having the ability to flush every single game from the day before, win or lose. You can't ride the highs and you can't ride the lows. I think this team is pretty even-keel. I think that this team will be able to adjust and be able to really focus every single day on a new game, and that's something I'm really excited for. In 2018, we started 9-9. We always say that: 2018, we started 9-9. We could either have taken a deep, deep road to failure or we could have done what we did and win the Big 12 and go to Omaha. That's something that I think is very valuable, is just being able to take each day as a new day. I think this team will be able to do it.

You've hit 19 home runs in your career. What's your favorite? 

I would say the (2018 regional) one against Indiana was probably my most memorable one. In a playoff situation and the Disch being packed, there's nothing that can really beat that. That's something you dream of as a kid.

The one at Minute Maid (Park against Arkansas in 2020) was really cool, really special to me as well. Just because there was so many of my family in the stands, so many of my friends in the stands. To be able to do that in front of them was really cool and at a place that I grew up watching the Astros play. But it has to be the one at regionals. That one was really, really cool to me and really special to me as well.

You have been attached to David Piece for longer than your teammates since you originally signed with him at Tulane. What has that relationship been like and what has made you want to play for him for this long?

He and I are very similar in the way that we look at life. We value the same things. We value family, we value friends. I think that he and I both are competitors and we both want to win. He really is trying to maximize every single player's not only potential on the baseball field but off the baseball field, and I think that's something I really value as a person. He's trying to grow young men, not only baseball players.

Obviously he wants the best of our baseball ability, but something that goes unnoticed a lot is that he's trying to make us better men, better husbands, better fathers. I think that's something that I'll be forever thankful for him and thankful for everything he's done for me in the last five years of my life.

You've recently earned the "Big Cat" nickname. Why is that? Does your game compare to Andrés Galarraga?

Yeah, so one day we're at practice and (volunteer assistant Troy Tulowitzki) stands behind all the infielders, and he started saying, "You're moving like a cat, you're moving like a cat," because I had gone through that body transformation, I was starting to move around really well. And he just started to say "Cat, like a cat, like a big cat, big cat." It just kind of stuck.

He likes to joke with me all the time about it. I hear more of that than I hear "Zach" or a lot of people call me "Zubia." He just calls me "Big Cat" now. It's something he and I laugh about; it's my nickname with him now. I think he played with Galarraga with the Rockies but I'm not 100% positive. Yeah, that's my nickname with him. That's something that he and I just mess around with.