Not much has bothered Arkansas right-hander Connor Noland in his freshman season, certainly not his spot in the team’s pitching rotation. Noland began the year as the Hogs’ Saturday starter. He was bumped back to Sundays after failing to record a single out in an April 13th start against Vanderbilt. Noland responded well, holding Mississippi State scoreless a week later, with just four hits through seven and two thirds innings of work. In his last six starts the freshman from Greenwood has logged an ERA of just under 2.0.
With Friday’s start against Central Connecticut State Noland will have pitched in all three weekend spots which is one reason why Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn isn’t worried about putting a freshman out front first in the Hogs’ Fayetteville regional opener.
“He’s pitched really good for the last five weeks,” Van Horn noted following Arkansas’ Thursday practice session at Baum-Walker Stadium. “Throwing a lot of strikes. Three or four pitches for strikes. I felt like it was a good matchup. I think they have one left-handed hitter in their lineup. So that’s what we decided to do.”
Noland pointed out that his last start was in the SEC Tournament against Ole Miss so come game time Friday he will have had a full week’s rest. But what about being the first pitcher out of the gate for the home team in this regional? He hasn’t been in a position like that before.
“No difference,” Noland answered with a shrug. “It’s just another game. It’s a regional but other than that it’s like any other game. I’m going to pitch the same.”
“If we didn’t think he could handle it we wouldn’t put him out there” Van Horn echoed. “He can handle anything. He’s pitched in front of ten and twelve thousand here in front of SEC teams. I think it’s just another game to Connor.”
CCSU head coach Charlie Hickey told reporters after his team’s practice session at Baum-Walker that he didn’t think Van Horn was overlooking the Blue Devils by saving Arkansas’ staff ace (Isaiah Campbell) for the Hogs’ anticipated matchup with two-seed Cal on Saturday.
“That’s how the game is played,” Hickey said when asked if he was offended by Van Horn’s decision. “It’s by no means an insult. The best way to win this thing is to be 2-0. I understand we’re coming as a four-seed. So that’s a compliment to Cal and TCU.”
And if Noland should experience an unexpected case of nerves in his first start in an NCAA regional?
“I know that whatever we see at the start of the game, there’s going to be plenty of reinforcements out in the bullpen if necessary,” Hickey predicted.
In his 20th season in charge of the CCSU baseball program Hickey admits that he’s never been in a situation like this one, facing the NCAA Tournament national five seed in one of the toughest venues for an opponent in all of college baseball. So what does he tell his players about the challenge they’re about to face?
“That we just play well,” Hickey answered. “Just play as well as we can. The talent level is going to be higher that we’ve ever played and that’s okay. The one thing we can’t do is give them extra outs. If you allow a team as good as Arkansas an extra out you’re probably looking at three to five runs in that inning.”
Van Horn was quick to note that the Hogs’ Friday opponent doesn’t have a history of giving up multiple run innings. Plus his own team, which for most of the season has thrived on big frames, has dropped off in run production since a game-three loss to LSU back on May 11.
“We can’t always control where the ball goes but it would be nice if we came out and hit the ball hard. Just have good at bats,” Van Horn said of his team’s approach to the regional opener. “If we do that the game will take care of itself.”
So what does he expect from Blue Devil’s starter Brandon Fox, a junior right-hander who as given up just 22 walks in 84 innings of work? “
“He’s not going to issue walks but he doesn’t necessarily get a lot of strikeouts either. He makes you put the bat on the ball,” Van Horn said of Fox. “We’ll probably look for early contact. We got to do a good job early in the count looking for certain pitches that we can hit hard.”
CCSU is just 30-21 on the season compared to Arkansas at 41-17 after playing an SEC schedule. But the Blue Devils didn’t exactly arrive in Fayetteville in the back of a pickup truck. They took out Northeast Conference Tournament favorite Bryant after climbing back through the loser’s bracket to knock off the Bulldogs in back-to-back elimination games. Bryant had run through conference play with a 19-5 record.
“We played some very good baseball against a very good team,” Hickey recalled. “People don’t hear a lot about schools up north but I know Arkansas has some history with Bryant because they knocked off Arkansas a few years ago. They had forty wins and a very good program but we were better last weekend.”
Regardless of how the week goes for his players Hickey insisted that he’s going to make sure they enjoy their trip south, telling reporters, “It’s nice to get out of the New England weather. We got down here yesterday and had a chance to have some barbecue. This supposed to be fun and I’m going to keep preaching that. Somebody told me we should visit, what was it, the “Class Bridges?” “
Informed that the “somebody” was probably referring to “Crystal Bridges,” a world class art museum in Bentonville, Hickey joked,” I don’t know if the boys will want to hear that but we’ll find something interesting to do this afternoon.”
They’ll also have plenty to do Friday afternoon in front of a crowd that is unlike anything Hickey’s players have seen. CCSU averaged just over a hundred fans a game at home this season. It’s season total of 2,700 fans doesn’t equal the attendance of a single early midweek game at Arkansas.
“One of the benefits of winning a conference championship and all of the accolades, you then get the pleasure of playing the fifth ranked team in the country in front of ten thousand people,” Hickey said with a chuckle. “I know there’s a lot of passion, a lot of excitement from their fans and a huge expectation for them to win.”