The No. 1 Arkansas Razorbacks have seemed destined for their third consecutive trip to College World Series from Day 1 of this season.
Sure, there have been a few bumps along the way. Mid-March was rough with back-to-back home losses to Oklahoma and Alabama, the latter by an almost unexplainable 16-1 margin. You could probably throw last Sunday’s 5-3 loss to Nebraska into that same mix.
However, for the bulk of the season, Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks have been durable and dependable, taking at least two out of three games in every series they’ve played.
NCAA Fayetteville Super Regional
Who: No. 1 Arkansas vs. No. 12 North Carolina State
When: 5 p.m. Friday, June 11
Where: Baum-Walker Stadium, Fayetteville
Game 2: 2 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2)
Game 3: 5 p.m. Sunday if necessary (TBA)
Winning 10 consecutive SEC series in a season has only been accomplished by one other team — Vanderbilt in 2014 — under the modern format of play.
The Hogs have been a solid No. 1 in the the polls for the better part of two months, and relief pitcher Kevin Kopps has developed into a folk hero of sorts thanks to his dominating performances on the mound.
When Van Horn calls Kopps, opponents are locked up.
The senior is an incredible 12-0 on the season with 10 saves. His gnat-sized ERA of 0.68 is impressive to fans and opponents alike. He’s the odds on favorite to win every award he is eligible for after his outstanding season. Last week in the Fayetteville Regional, Kopps was simply incredible, throwing 185 pitches to garner two wins and a save over New Jersey Institute, and Nebraska twice.
While Kopps has been the story of the year in college baseball, the Razorbacks also have some offensive sting when they are at their best. The Razorbacks have already set a school record for home runs with 102, and we’re still counting.
Arkansas is chasing Old Dominion for the national home-run lead of 105. With the Monarchs bowing out of the tournament last week, there is a decent chance the Hogs will overtake them in the category.
Six Hogs have gone yard at least 10 times with second baseman Robert Moore leading the way with 14. Center fielder Christian Franklin, designated hitter/right fielder Matt Goodheart, first baseman Brady Slavens, and right fielder Cayden Wallace each have 13 home runs this season, and third baseman Cullen Smith has 10.
Shortstop Jalen Battles, pinch hitter Charlie Welch, and outfielder Braydon Webb have also shown some pop with six homers apiece.
As strong as Kopps has been on the mound and considering the Hogs’ impressive power at the plate, the most consistent and durable aspect of the Razorbacks’ game is their defense.
Other than the outlier losses to Oklahoma and Alabama in mid-March, the Razorbacks have played great defense, spearheaded by Casey Opitz’s play and leadership behind the plate. Moore and Battles have great range at second and short stop, and Franklin’s outstanding athletic ability has been key in center field.
This Razorback team has grit and a bulldog toughness that is difficult not to admire.
It’s one of those Razorback teams that could be remembered for a long time by fans. Should they win it all this season, these Diamond Hogs would join rarified air in Razorback history, occupied by teams like Frank Broyles’ 1963-65 Hogs who captured a national title and won 22 consecutive football games while compiling the longest winning streak of the 1960s, or Eddie Sutton’s 1978 Final Four squad that put Arkansas basketball on the map, or Nolan Richardson’s 1994-95 national championship and runner-up squads.
It could be a team that achieves excellence like so many of the national champion track and cross country teams that John McDonnell coached.
But for that to have a chance to happen, it all must come together for this Razorback squad. The Hogs must make it to the College World Series first, and to do that, the Razorbacks have to take two of three games this weekend against a surging North Carolina State squad the plated 30 runs in three games in winning the Ruston (La.) Regional.
The Hogs, who will start lefty Patrick Wicklander on Friday, may have won the SEC regular-season title and the SEC Tournament — something no other Arkansas team has done — but for this team to approach excellence, the Razorbacks must find a way to take the series from one of the hottest teams in the country.
In his 25th season at NC State, coach Elliott Avent has the Wolfpack peaking at just the right time. He’s looking forward to seeing his squad matchup with the Hogs, who have been winning but not necessary hitting the ball as well as they would like. Like most everyone, who has visited Baum-Walker Stadium, he’s been impressed by what he has seen.
“I’m just happy to be here, great ballpark, tremendous baseball environment that we will be seeing in a short period of time,” Avent said. “It is a great fanbase with very kind people that love the Razorbacks so we are happy to be here.”
Avent continued to butter Arkansas up.
“I don’t think you can’t ever prepare for anything like that,” Avent said. “ As hard as you can try to prepare, you can’t really do it. It comes down to the players. Our players have overcome a lot of things.”
As complimentary as Avent was of the Razorbacks, their facilities and the 11,000 plus who will fill the stadium this weekend, make no mistake, he and his Wolfpack intend to break their hearts over the course of the next three days.
For the Hogs to get past the Wolfpack and make it to the baseball promised land of Omaha, the Hogs will likely have to hit the ball better than they have in recent weeks.
“Yeah, we’re going to have to swing the bats a lot better the next couple of days if we’re going to win this series,” Van Horn said Thursday.
Arkansas’ batting average of .269 is very low for a team that has accomplished so much this season. Thirteen of the 16 teams left in the NCAA Tournament have a better average than the Razorbacks, who have seen their average slowly dip despite winning close game after close game in the SEC round robin, the SEC Tournament, and last week’s Regional.
Again, the Razorbacks are a gritty, tough and talented baseball team that doesn’t beat themselves. They have a knack for getting not only timely hits but also timely home runs. The Hogs have made a living out of cashing in on walks and the other mistakes of their opponents.
However, for the Razorbacks to get over the hump this weekend and earn their trip to the College World Series against the Wolfpack, they might need to heat up at the plate.