It wasn’t until the third time he was on the market, but Jack Wagner was finally pursued by the kind of school he had always dreamed of playing for and he jumped at the opportunity to join the Arkansas baseball program.
He grew up watching the Razorbacks play in the postseason and fondly remembers fellow Wichita native Jared Gates helping them to a national runner-up finish in 2018, so that made it a “no-brainer” when they reached out to him in the transfer portal.
“Growing up in Kansas, it’s always been a dream to play at a perennial powerhouse school like Arkansas,” Wagner told Best of Arkansas Sports in an exclusive interview. “It seemed like Arkansas was always in a regional or super regional — and even Omaha — every single year.”
Now, after stops at Kansas and Tarleton State, Wagner will play his sixth and final season of college baseball in Fayetteville, announcing his commitment to Arkansas baseball on June 16.
The Razorbacks entered the picture when assistant coach Nate Thompson reached out about a week after he went into the portal and he made his decision following a visit to the campus.
“I fell in love with the place,” Wagner said. “I mean, I loved the coaches and obviously the facilities are unbelievable… Just everything about the program and the culture. You’ve got to take your game to the next level if you want to play at a school like Arkansas.”
The First 2 Recruitments of Jack Wagner
A two-sport athlete at Maize South High in Wichita, Kan., Jack Wagner was not ranked on Perfect Game in the Class of 2018 and his recruitment mostly involved local schools.
He said he was offered by Wichita State and Kansas, with Kansas State and Texas Tech also in the mix. Quite a few junior colleges offered him the opportunity to develop before heading to a Division I school, as well, but he turned that down to play for the Jayhawks.
As a freshman in 2019, Wagner appeared in just 17 games with five starts and went 9 for 32 (.281) with seven RBIs. He cracked the starting lineup the following year, getting the nod as the Opening Day designated hitter, but the pandemic wiped out that season after just 17 games.
Before the season was shut down, Wagner made 12 starts in 14 appearances, but struggled at the plate, going just 8 for 36 (.222). He showed some improvement as a junior in 2021 and started 31 of 43 games in which he appeared, mostly in right field, while hitting .257 (29 for 113) with two home runs and 17 RBIs.
Unfortunately, an injury prevented him from building on that season. Wagner missed all of 2022 because of offseason Tommy John surgery. He said he “had a blast” during his four years in Lawrence, but when longtime Kansas baseball coach Ritch Price retired, he was part of a mass exodus.
While several of his teammates – Maui Ahuna (Tennessee), Tavian Josenberger (Arkansas), Cooper McMurray (Auburn), Ryan Vanderhei (TCU) and Casey Burnham (Nebraska) – went on to be significant contributors at other big schools, things were relatively quiet for Wagner in the transfer portal.
“I heard from a few schools in the portal that go around, a lot of smaller schools,” Wagner said. “As the summer went on, I hadn’t heard from a lot of people because people are kind of afraid to take that risk on an older guy coming off of a major injury.”
It wasn’t until well into July that Tarleton State – a school in Stephenville, Texas, that made the jump from Division II to Division I in 2020 and competes in the WAC – popped up on his radar. Even though Wagner realized it was a step down from the Big 12, he knew he’d have a chance to prove himself.
That’s just what he did with the Texans, slashing .337/.451/.692 with 15 home runs and 56 RBIs. His 1.143 OPS was easily the best on the team, as were his home run and RBI totals. He also led the team in walks (28) and hit by pitches (11), plus tied for the team lead in triples (4).
Certainly the drop in competition played a factor in his OPS increasing by 400 points over his time at Kansas, as did some adjustments he made in his swing, but Wagner mostly credited his offensive surge to the time he missed because of the injury.
“I would say, honestly, getting hurt and missing my senior year was the biggest blessing in disguise,” Wagner said. “Got to develop more in the weight room, take my work ethic to the next level and really solidify a good routine that works for me.
“I’m grateful for the struggle I went through my senior year at KU because it kind of made me who I am now.”
From Tarleton State to Arkansas
The player Jack Wagner is now made him a much more attractive option in the transfer portal this offseason when he decided to enter it again.
He admitted things were “definitely a little bit more exciting” this go around, with quite a few mid-majors and Power Five schools – including several in the SEC – reaching out.
Arkansas ended up being the only school he visited, but Wagner said he was also considering Texas A&M and TCU. Vanderbilt also emerged late in the process, but it was right before he announced his commitment.
“It was definitely really cool to go through that process and talk to some coaches and feel everything out,” Wagner said. “Kind of glad it’s over now. I don’t want to say (it was) a stressful time, just a lot going on and people are constantly calling you, but glad with how it ended up and I can’t be more excited to get to Fayetteville.”
One thing working in the Razorbacks’ favor this offseason was the fact that Tavian Josenberger played at Arkansas in 2023. He and Wagner played next to each other – Josenberger in center and Wagner in right – at Kansas in 2021 and were also teammates last year.
That time together led to Wagner describing Josenberger as “my boy” and a “really good friend.” The two stayed in touch over the past year, so Wagner naturally talked to him about the decision.
“Seeing him go have success this past year and take his game to the next level is really cool,” Wagner said. “Talking with him about what I was thinking, he said it was the most fun he’s ever had playing baseball, loved everything about it and didn’t have one bad thing to say. Hearing that from a good friend makes the decision a lot easier.”
The success of Josenberger likely didn’t hurt either. Wagner watched as his friend went from having a .773 OPS over two seasons at Kansas to posting a .904 OPS and evolving into a legitimate MLB Draft prospect in his lone year with Arkansas baseball.
How he Fits with Arkansas Baseball
Last season, the Razorbacks landed an under-the-radar transfer coming off a breakout year at Creighton named Jared Wegner. It proved to be a huge pickup, even though there was some confusion surrounding the pronunciation of his last name.
There won’t be any issues with pronouncing Jack Wagner’s name, but Dave Van Horn is likely hoping for similar results from the Tarleton State transfer.
Despite making the jump from the Big East to the SEC, Wegner was one of Arkansas’ top hitters this season. He slashed .313/.457/.673 with 15 home runs and 51 RBIs despite missing 18 games with an injury.
Wagner will be trying to translate his success in the WAC to the SEC and is confident he can.
“I’m super confident that I can come in and help the team win next year, even though that will be in the SEC,” Wagner said. “Talking to Tavian, he said the pitching is obviously different. Every guy that runs out, you’re going to see that he’s a dude.
“Taking that into account and playing in front of great fan bases will be pretty cool. I’m super stoked and super confident. I feel like if you’re getting the opportunity to play at a big school like Arkansas, you can’t lose your confidence.”
The question will be where Wagner ends up defensively. He was primarily a corner outfielder at Kansas, but mostly played first base at Tarleton State. The Razorbacks have a need at both spots, but a lot of factors are still up in the air.
There’s a chance Peyton Stovall’s shoulder surgery forces him to move back to first base, similar to Trevor Ezell, and Ben McLaughlin would also be a candidate to play first if Stovall sticks at second because that likely moves Peyton Holt to third base – where McLaughlin will also likely get work this fall. Sophomores Jayson Jones and Reese Robinett could also factor in as infielders.
In the outfield, Kendall Diggs will almost certainly take one of the corner outfield spots after starting at designated hitter most of 2023 while also playing right field because of injuries. The Razorbacks have also landed Missouri transfer Ty Wilmsmeyer, who was the Tigers’ starting center fielder the last two years, and JUCO transfer Will Edmunson, a corner outfielder at Hutchinson C.C. Their lone outfielder signee, Kendall George, is a top MLB Draft prospect and may not even make it to campus.
Wagner said he anticipates his initial position being first base, a spot he learned last summer when he hadn’t yet been fully cleared following his Tommy John surgery and then continued to play at Tarleton State because of the team’s needs.
“I’m going in thinking I’ll work a little bit more at first rather than the outfield right away, but we’ll see,” Wagner said. “I’m comfortable doing whatever. I just kind of want to be that Swiss Army knife they can throw anywhere and trust to be anywhere as long as I’m hitting.”
What’s Next for Jack Wagner
Now entering his sixth season of college baseball, Jack Wagner is once again a graduate transfer. He got a Sports Management degree from Kansas and started working toward a master’s in Managerial Science at Tarleton State last year.
He’s still going through the process of figuring out which of those credits will transfer to Arkansas and which program he’ll be in at the UA, but his future is likely on a diamond in some form or fashion.
“I want to keep playing as long as I can and I love the game a lot,” Wagner said. “The little kid in me comes out when I’m playing. Maybe looking to get into coaching when I’m done playing, so getting the opportunity to come play at Arkansas is pretty special.”
Playing for someone like Dave Van Horn is a graduate program of sorts for those hoping to get into coaching themselves, but before he worries about that, he will try to make the most of his final year of college baseball.
Based on feedback from Wes Hunt, Tarleton State’s interim head coach, Wagner is just the kind of player you want in your locker room.
“He’s going to bring the (juice) to Fayetteville,” Hunt said. “Dude has a great personality and has worked his tail off to get there. He’ll provide high-level energy in the dugout and is extremely happy to be a Hog for his final go around.”
Wagner said he might head out west to play in the California Collegiate League next month, but hasn’t officially decided. In the meantime, he’s working on a few tweaks to his swing and hitting the weight room hard so he can be in the best shape possible when he arrives in Fayetteville.
When that time does come, the hope – regardless of his eventual role – is to be a veteran presence on a team with national championship aspirations.
“I just want to be that older leader guy that can maybe help out the younger guys and give advice and be a great role model for everybody and step in and be a team player and try to help the team make it to Omaha and win a national championship,” Jack Wagner said. “That’s definitely the goal from a team perspective, but for me individually, just being the same guy every day and working hard and going about things the right way.”
More coverage of Arkansas baseball from BoAS…