Pain Fueled Hagen Smith’s New Record and the Man Whose Throne He Took

David Walling, Hagen Smith, Arkansas baseball, Fayetteville Regional, NCAA Tournament
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / Craven Whitlow

In the end, David Walling used it as fuel. In the 1998 NCAA Tournament, Walling was one of Arkansas Baseball’s best pitchers and in the midst of a great sophomore season. He had broken Matt Carnes’ 1995 record of 111 strikeouts in a single season with 128. However, one more-than-slight problem emerged.

NCAA Tournament Heartbreak

In that year’s NCAA Regional elimination game, Walling gave up a grand slam to Arizona State en route to an 8-4 loss and ended the Razorbacks’ season. Just like that, an individual dream year went up in flames. To this day, the memory still burns for the 45-year-old CEO of a heating and cooling company in Arizona.

“l tell you my sophomore year I remember giving up a grand slam to Arizona State in our regional,” Walling told Best of Arkansas Sports. “Felt pretty responsible for not getting us started that year. So it’s funny the things you remember, but that was something I wish I could have taken back.”

So Walling went out and smashed his own record again, pitching 121 1/3 innings and striking out 155 batters in 1999 before becoming a first-round draft pick of the New York Yankees. It’s a record that stood until Hagen Smith struck out Kansas State’s Brady Day in the second inning of the 1-0 game in the 2024 Fayetteville Regional:

Fast forward 25 years and Smith is almost on the same trajectory. The potential top-5 MLB Draft pick had a good sophomore season with one major blip almost one year ago. No doubt, for Hagen Smith, the painful memory of how last season ended still lingers in his mind. 

He had a first-row view from the mound in both games against TCU that ended Arkansas’ season in the regional, losing them by a combined score of 32-9. Smith gave up a grand slam of his own to TCU’s Tre Richardson. 

Offseason Precursor for Walling, Smith

Much like David Walling, that painful moment fueled Hagen Smith going into the next season and set in motion one of the most dominant seasons in Arkansas history. 

“Definitely a little bit,” Smith said before the regional on whether or not last year gave him motivation. ”Especially early in the offseason, just kind of had that in mind. Going into this year, it’s a completely different year and I’m a completely different pitcher.” 

Walling and Smith are completely different pitchers. Walling was your prototypical late-90s innings-eater ace, only averaging 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings, using his control as his biggest weapon with a changeup and a curveball. 

“I was a control guy,” Walling said. “I threw consistently about 92-94 (mph). I would touch 95 or 96 on a good day, but I had a lot of movement on my fastball and I could locate it.”

That’s a far cry from Smith’s blazing fastball that has blown away SEC hitters, but there’s another common thread between the two hurlers now forever linked by the record books: neither thinks much of records. 

Smith already holds the program record for most strikeouts in a career, breaking Nick Schmidt’s record of 345 and has an outside shot of hitting 400. He probably would have already broken the single-season mark if not for an abbreviated start in the SEC Tournament that lasted just two innings.

None of it seemed to be on Smith’s mind heading into the regional. Walling had high praise for the ace’s mentality. 

“I think your mindset is really more on winning the World Series than it is just an individual record,” Walling told Best of Arkansas Sports. “Seeing what Smith is doing this year and what kind of season he’s had, he’s clearly a great team player and very competitive. A guy like that I would bet is focused on winning the World Series, not so much individual records.” 

Walling Keeping an Eye on Arkansas Baseball from Afar

Although Walling does not have kids of his own and is largely removed from the game in terms of coaching, but still keeps a keen eye on the game. He spends most of his time being the CEO of Axis Portable Air and using many of the skills as a team member of the Razorbacks to operate his business. He also carves out time to root for his Alma Mater. 

“I’ve had people reach out to me this year about Hagen,” Walling said. “Records are meant to be broken, and if you are gonna have your record broken, you want to be broken by a guy that really has a special year and he is without a doubt had one of the best years I’ve ever seen from a collegiate pitcher.” 

The epilogue of Smith’s historic season is yet to be written, and here’s where the stories between the former emperor of the throne and the heir apparent hope their own personal epics diverge. The 1998 and 1999 teams both failed to make it out of the regional. 

The 2024 team is well on its way after starting 1-0. As if almost with poetic justice, the 1999 team lost to Southwest Missouri State (now known as Missouri State) 9-8 before losing to Clemson in an elimination game. The 2024 team enacted a certain level of revenge with a 17-9 win over another directional school from our neighbor to the north, Southeast Missouri State.

Twenty-five years later, the postscript of the historic season already has one happier ending, Arkansas fans will be hoping for quite a few more before Smith goes off and becomes a high first-round draft pick of his own. 

David Walling vs Hagen Smith

David Walling (1999)Hagen Smith (2024)*
18 games (16 starts)15 games (15 starts)
10-7 record9-1 record
121 1/3 innings79 innings
3.78 ERA1.48 ERA
155 strikeouts154 strikeouts
31 walks30 walks
11.5 K/9IP17.5 K/9IP
*Hagen Smith’s stats don’t include Saturday’s game vs Kansas State


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