There was a time, not so long ago, when veteran Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn was quite content to send his team on the road for NCAA regional play and why not?
In 2006 and 2007 Arkansas hosted NCAA Regionals and failed to advance. In 2009 the Hogs made it to the College World Series out of the Norman, Oklahoma Regional and the Tallahassee, Florida Super Regional. In 2012 Arkansas made it to Omaha with stops at the Houston, Texas Regional and the Waco, Texas Super Regional. In 2015 yet another College World Series bid started at the Stillwater, Oklahoma Regional. But in 2017 the Razorbacks failed to advance out of another Fayetteville Regional.
It hasn’t all been bad at Baum Stadium. Van Horn’s second team at Arkansas used a Fayetteville Regional and Super Regional to make it to Omaha. The 2018 Razorbacks finished second at the College World Series in a playoff journey that involved a Fayetteville Regional and Super Regional.
So when the field for the 2019 NCAA Tournament was announced on Monday Van Horn said of Arkansas’ opportunity to host for the third consecutive season, “I think the guys are excited about getting back and playing in front of their crowd and sleeping in their own beds. So it feels good.”
Junior staff ace Isaiah Campbell went beyond that, declaring that when it comes to trying to reach Omaha, there’s no place better to start than at home.
“Not many teams get to say they play in front of the best fans in the country,” Campbell observed. “We’re gonna pack eight, ten thousand fans in here this weekend and I don’t think the teams that are coming in here have probably faced or have been in an environment like that so far this year.”
Over the past several days a debate had raged among Arkansas fans on social media. Their team, which had been neck and neck with Vanderbilt in the battle for an SEC Championship, lost three of its last four regular season games and went 1-2 in the SEC Tournament. Was the sky falling at the wrong time?
The NCAA Tournament selection committee put those last six games away from Baum-Walker Stadium into perspective when it named Arkansas a number five national seed. Not only will the Hogs host a regional but if they can win it they will remain at home for a Super Regional for the second year in a row.
This team was projected as a number four national seed before losing five of seven so clearly the committee gave weight to the entire season, not what happened over the last two weeks.
“It’s great that we’ve had a good year and won enough games against some really good teams that has allowed us to keep our RPI up there and the rankings and stick around at the top of the league, “Van Horn noted. “We won the West. Shared it with Mississippi State (No. 6 national seed) but we beat ’em three times. They look at all that stuff.”
Arkansas will begin regional play at 2 p.m. on Friday against Central Connecticut State, winner of the Northeast Conference Tournament. The atmosphere that Campbell mentioned at Baum-Walker Stadium will be quite a change for the Blue Devils who drew a grand total of 2,542 fans at home the entire season for an average attendance of just 133 per game.
Van Horn said that sort of thing can be a plus for a regional four seed, telling reporters, “They’re dangerous. They come in with nothing to lose. No pressure on them. Happy to get the opportunity to play in a regional.”
What do the Razorback know about their Friday opponent?
“I don’t know anything about ’em,” sophomore shortstop Casey Martin said with a laugh just minutes after learning of the matchup. “We just got to show up and play. We probably won’t look too much into it. Just show up and play.”
Actually Van Horn does plan to come up with a good scouting report on the Blue Devils. By the time he spoke with the media he had already taken a quick look at some stats. Central Connecticut is 30-21 on the season with a 16-8 conference record. They bat .260 as a team with just 26 home runs. The staff ERA is 4.32.
“We need to dig into it a little bit more,” Van Horn stressed. “Are they a right-handed hitting team?
Left? Switch? Try to find out about their starting pitching.”
The Blue Devils will come in on somewhat of a roll. After winning their opening game of the Northeast Conference Tournament they lost to Byrant but bounced back with three consecutive elimination game wins including back-to-back victories over Bryant to punch their ticket to Fayetteville. Many Razorback fans remember Bryant, a team that knocked off Arkansas in the opening game of the Manhattan, Kansas Regional in 2013. It’s a reminder not lost on Campbell whose job it will be to make sure that Arkansas doesn’t drop another regional first round game to a Northeast Conference opponent.
“It’s post season ball,” Campbell noted. “You can throw records out. It doesn’t matter what conference a team is from. It just takes one good game to beat somebody.”
Van Horn gave his team Sunday off and does not plan any heavy workouts the rest of the week until Friday. He attributes much of his team’s hitting problems over the last seven games to fatigue. In its last five losses Arkansas has average a little over one and a half runs a game. Quite a drop from a stretch in April and May where the Hogs scored double digit runs in 12 games.
“I think they’re a little tired,” Van Horn said of his batting lineup. “I feel like our swings were maybe a little bit slower than normal. Maybe fatigued. I’m hoping we can talk about it in a week, and we’re still playing, that we just needed to rest a little bit.”
“That was a long road trip,” senior first baseman Trevor Ezell acknowledged. “All in all about ten days. I think just being back and a couple of days off, it’ll be a good refresher and we’ll come out strong.”
If the Razorbacks do advance Ole Miss is lurking as the host of its own regional. The winner of the Oxford, Mississippi Regional will be paired against the winner of the Fayetteville Regional for the right to move on to Omaha. The Rebels were the only team to win a series from Arkansas at Baum-Walker Stadium this season and hold a 3-2 edge over the Hogs in 2019, knocking them out of the SEC Tournament last week. Van Horn was asked about possibility of yet another appearance by Ole Miss in Fayetteville this season.
“You’re way ahead of me. I haven’t look that far down the road,” Van Horn answered. “I’m just going to try to get through Friday and this regional. It does look like from what I saw pop up (the bracket selections) if the host team wins you’re gonna have a lot of leagues matching up against each other in super regionals. I’m sure that wasn’t by chance.”
The head coach also exercised his option of playing in the afternoon game on day one of the Fayetteville Regional with Cal taking on TCU in the night game.
“I was asked by our administration if we had the opportunity to host a regional would you want to play in the first game or the second game and my answer was the same as it is every year. I’d like to play the first game. The reason being, weather can really put a spin on the whole tournament. The second game gets rain delayed. Goes into the night. We have to play the next day. Have to play a couple of games. It can get rough.”
Not many teams could play a weekday afternoon game, even in an NCAA Regional, and expect a full house but Van Horn said he’s not worried about people showing up. “We’ve done really well for maybe ten years now,” he recalled. “I think we’ll have a good crowd. They’ll be loud and it should be a great atmosphere.”