As a Hog fan, it’s good to just take a breath and appreciate what the Arkansas Razorbacks baseball team has accomplished already this season before getting revved back up for the Fayetteville Regional that will be played in the friendly confines of Baum-Walker Stadium.
The Regional begins at 1 p.m. Friday when the top seeded Hogs (41-17) face No. 4 seed Central Connecticut State. At 6 p.m. second-seeded California (32-18) squares off with No. 3 seed TCU (32-26).
It’s going to be a party in the Hog Pen this weekend, and no fans support their program more ardently when they are winning than Hog fans.
No doubt, Razorbackers across the state are expecting more from Dave Van Horn’s Diamond Hogs, and they are obviously eager to oblige.
All Razorbacks have had their mind on this year’s College World Series since Arkansas exited as runner-up to Oregon State late last June. None of us needs to be reminded how close the Razorbacks came to winning their first baseball national championship.
And while nothing is certain, the Razorbacks have earned a plumb position to make a big push for a return to Omaha this year by earning one of the eight National Seeds. That distinction not only allows the Razorbacks to host the Regional this weekend but also to host a Super Regional next weekend if they are able to advance that far.
And that’s why I say it’s good for Arkansas fans to take a minute to enjoy the sweetness of their situation. The program is positioned in rarefied air at the moment, earning its second consecutive National Seed.
The last time Arkansas approached this level in one of the three major sports was Bobby Petrino’s 2010 and 2011 football squads that played in the Sugar and Cotton bowls back to back seasons and finishing 12th and fifth in the final AP Poll.
Prior to that you have to reach back to 1994 and 1995 when Nolan Richardson won the national title and followed it up with a runner-up finish.
As I said this Razorback team is flirting with rarified air already at this point in the season to be this good two seasons in a row, and if they do win their way back to the College World Series this year, the 2018 and 2019 Diamond Hogs have to be in that conversation with those great basketball and football teams.
So even though there is baseball to be played this weekend and hopefully more throughout the month of June, it’s a good time for Hog fans just to appreciate this moment while hopefully looking forward to better ones in the coming weeks.
Look, the Razorbacks weren’t expected to be this good. They have overachieved. While one poll had the Hogs ranked as high as 12th in the preseason, Baseball America had Arkansas pegged at 18th, primarily because of its respect for head coach Dave Van Horn.
The Razorbacks returned key talent from last year’s runner-up squad — Casey Martin, Heston Kjerstad and Matt Cronin — but there were major holes to fill. Van Horn and his staff did it.
After an up-and-down sophomore campaign, junior pitcher Isaiah Campbell (10-1, 2.37) has been a rock solid ace for the Razorbacks this season, setting the tone not only for Arkansas’ pitchers but for the entire team. He’s been a pleasure to watch each and every game he’s pitched this season.
I had never really been a fan of the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule that offered an athlete that graduated at one institution to continue their remaining eligibility at another program if he is pursuing an advanced degree until this season and seeing the play of Trevor Ezell.
The rule had been around since 2011, but Ezell is the first grad transfer to make a serious impact on the field in the big three sports for Arkansas. It’s been a pleasure to watch Ezell, a Bryant native who got his bachelor’s degree from Southeast Missouri State, prove his mettle at the SEC level.
A natural second baseman, Ezell transitioned to first base because of surgery that affected his throwing arm. He became a fixture at the position earning second-team All-SEC honors and a spot on the SEC All-Defensive team. His move into the lead-off role keyed a surge in the Hogs’ hitting which helped them tied for the SEC Western Division title.
The NCAA has worries about abuses of the graduate transfer rule, but with potentially key players on the Razorbacks’ football and basketball team next season using it, I’m become a believer, and the play of Ezell prompted my shift in thinking.
The Razorbacks have also gotten strong play from freshmen this year with every-day starters Christian Franklin in left field and Jacob Nesbit at third base. Arkansas also counts on freshmen pitchers Patrick Wicklander (5-2, 4.65) and Connor Noland (2-4, 3.71) as Day 2 and 3 weekend starters for much of the season. Getting those freshmen to mesh so quickly and well has been a boon for the Hogs this season.
Like Campbell, second baseman Jack Kenley has developed into a star of sorts for the Razorbacks this season. After not hitting a home run his first two seasons with the Hogs, he’s belted 12 this season and is hitting a strong .311. He’s an excellent fielder who is adept at playing second, shortstop or third base. It will be interesting to see where he is drafted and whether or not he’ll be back for his senior season.
Catcher Casey Opitz might be the best at the position in the SEC defensively. He has nifty feet and hands behind the plate, and he’s like a sniper mowing down base stealers at second. While his batting average isn’t impressive, he has had a knack for coming up with timely hits this season.
Martin at shortstop, Kjerstad in right field, and Dominic Fletcher at shortstop are the backbone of the team, and aren’t all Hog fans grateful that designated hitter Matt Goodheart got his eyes check.
Arkansas’ bullpen has been up and down. Cronin is a beast and one of the best closers in the college game, but the rest of Arkansas’ pitchers have had their good and bad days. For the most part, when one of the relievers has been off another has been on.
All of those Razorbacks and others have combined to make this an outstanding season for their fans up to this juncture. It’s been a great season so far, and it’s going to be fun to watch them continue their quest to make it back to Omaha for some unfinished business.