Heads held high. That was Coach Dave Van Horn’s firm statement after the tough 2-0 loss to the University of Mississippi in the bracket two winner-take-all final at the College World Series. Both teams lined up the best they had in their sixth meeting of the season (which was split 3-3) in what amounted to the best pitched game of the tournament thus far. Connor Noland and Rebels’ ace Dylan DeLucia squared off against two incredibly deep and talented offenses and simply dominated.
Unfortunately for the Razorbacks and their fan base, DeLucia was just a little better. I began to worry when several balls in the middle innings were smoked directly to a Rebel defender. Baseball can be funny like that. Some days, bloopers and dribblers find a hole and other days, line shots somehow find a glove. DeLucia was fantastic and the statements above are not meant to minimize his performance. The Razorbacks had battered several aces and All Americans on their way to bracket final and he found a way to silence the Razorbacks offensively.
Connor Noland and the Razorback defense was incredibly good as well. In what was likely his last start as a Razorback, Noland executed pitch after pitch trying to keep the Hogs within striking distance. He really only made one “bad” pitch which was a hanging breaking ball to Razorback-killer Kevin Graham that he drilled just inside and just over Peyton Stovall’s glove at first base to drive in the first run of the game. Graham has been bludgeoning Razorback pitching since he was a freshman and DVH even mentioned he had nightmares about him in his post game remarks.
The Omahogs infield defense was dazzling as always with several key plays preventing Rebel rallies. It’s rare when a baseball announcer refers to a baseball defense as “vaunted” but that is exactly what ESPN’s Karl Ravech stated. That term is usually reserved for the football Crimson Tide defense or the like but definitely applies to this year’s Razorback baseball defense. Other than a short, sloppy stretch during the end of season struggles, these guys, as a unit, were like the iron curtain.
But enough about this single game as it doesn’t and won’t define the 2022 Razorback baseball season. Once again, DVH and the gang found a way to get to Omaha. Despite being unseeded and on the road the entire tournament, the Omahogs were one of the last three teams alive. To put that into perspective, there are 301 NCAA Division 1 baseball teams. That puts the Razorbacks in the top 1% of all of college baseball and this is the second time in the past four full seasons that the Arkansas Razorbacks have been there.
In those last four full seasons of college baseball, the Razorbacks have been to Omaha three times including a second and third place finish and the team that didn’t make it to the College World Series won over 50 games, was ranked #1 the entire season and missed Omaha by a measly one run. Twice. Expand that out over time and it’s five times to Omaha in the past 10 full seasons. Plus, no other team has won at such a consistently high level in the last five years. That’s a pretty good recruiting tool to say you have that kind of opportunity to play in the College World Series if you come to Arkansas.
What makes it more impressive is the star players move on and another crop falls right in behind them. 2018’s Blaine Knight moves on to pro ball so Isaiah Campbell replaces and becomes a bonafide ace in 2019. Campbell hands the keys to Patrick Wicklander. Wicklander to Noland. And keep in mind, Noland wasn’t supposed to be the Friday night guy for the 2022 Razorbacks. Sophomore Payton Pallette, whom Baseball America had tabbed as the highest ranked college pitching prospect for the 2022 draft, was earmarked for that spot until he blew out his elbow and had season ending surgery just before the season started. Other teams lost their ace and first round draft pick type arms (Alabama’s Connor Prielipp and Mississippi State’s Landon Sims come to mind in the SEC) but didn’t finish third in the NCAA tournament.
You could go on and one, position by position with the Razorbacks.
Arkansas Recruiting in Baseball
The program has reached the point where there is no rebuilding. The incredible consistency of Razorback baseball is remarkable, especially when you consider last year’s national champion didn’t even make the 2022 SEC Conference tournament, much less the NCAA tournament.
There is no doubt it is agonizing to be this good and get this close and not bring home the national championship hardware but rest assured Dave Van Horn and the Razorbacks’ time is coming.
The Razorback coaching staff continues to recruit at a high, high level and the future is bright. The 2022 incoming Arkansas recruiting class is ranked #5 by Perfect Game and that doesn’t include the four super-talented infielders (like Greenwood native Peyton Holt) coming from the junior college ranks or the two junior college arms inbound including San Jacinto’s ace Hunter Hollan. who flipped from TCU to Arkansas recently (his team plays in the video below). Arkansas 2023 class is ranked #2 trailing only Vanderbilt. The MLB Draft will dent these classes at all of the top end schools, not only Arkansas. So time will tell but one has to like the talent level of the future Razorbacks.
And then there is the transfer portal where Arkansas has already landed former Creighton star Jared Wenger for next season. Arkansas found two gems in the portal last year in Michael Turner and Chris Lanzilli who both produced big time for the Hogs (and for the record, I firmly believe Oklahoma transfer Jace Bohrofen will be very productive before his time is up in Fayetteville). Now that the season is over, DVH, Matt Hobbs and Nate Thompson can go to work filling needs with a very selective effort. I suspect they will look for a catcher, some experienced, proven arms to supplement Pallette, Hagen Smith and Brady Tygart as well as another outfielder or two with some power.
And the program and its fan base should take great pride in not only the talent but what kind of kids Arkansas recruits. DVH’s program is held in the highest regard for the style of play and how his players handle themselves. At times this season, admittedly from the outside looking in, the Razorbacks tried too hard to be the anti-Tennessee. Almost stoic at times. Some of that probably relates frustrations tied to offensive struggles and some from the vibe that DVH’s Razorbacks don’t act like that.
But that seemed to change in the postseason. Despite playing in the pressure cooker that is the NCAA baseball tournament, the Razorbacks seemed to play much looser, much more confident and in turn, played their baseball of the season as they marched to Omaha. The offense resembled what the fan base had come to expect based on DVH’s preseason comments. The defense held up all year as did the pitching for the most part.
Nobody seemed to come more to life than Turner who, to some fans, seemed like he would rather be somewhere else besides catching. There’s no doubt Turner is a low-heartbeat guy. He has a cool, calm, collective veteran approach to baseball and there’s nothing wrong with that but it definitely rubbed some of the fan base wrong for some reason. Cayden Wallace, Connor Noland, Jalen Battles and some others are the same. It likely had more to do with replacing the energetic Casey Opitz who was full go, all the time.
Turning Point for Arkansas Baseball Season
But after the whole debacle with the critical, insensitive, uninformed rental player comments by a local radio host, Turner seemed to blossom not only with his onfield performance but that’s also when his fist pumping, engaging personality started to shine. He was having a good, solid season before the NCAA tournament but cemented himself as a fan favorite with an incredibly productive postseason. Despite being in the program for one season, he goes out a highly regarded Razorback and will be forever mentioned in the Hogs’ long running tradition of outstanding catchers.
I don’t know this for a fact but I also think the improved play came from Dave Van Horn taking the overly negative, personally attacking players element of the fan base head on late in the season. A weight went off the players’ shoulders when their coach stood up for them and the program and the true, supportive fans pushed to the forefront. Every team, at every level, has their critics. Go down to your local Little League and listen to all the experts in the stands about who should play where and why didn’t Johnny get a hit with runners in scoring position. LSU, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State have the same distractions. Hell, the Ole Miss fans wanted Bianco gone when they struggled midseason and now they are playing for the national championship this weekend.
There’s a reason why these guys are college coaches and fans are accountants, lawyers, salesmen and so on. There is also a reason why the players are competing at the highest level of college baseball (or insert any sport) and a majority of fans stopped playing their respective sport before high school. The Razorback baseball program has great coaches and very good to great players giving their all to bring home the big trophy at the end of the year.
That national championship hasn’t happened yet for baseball but as one of my very baseball savvy friends said last night after the loss, keep knocking at that door and someday it will get answered. Of course, that isn’t a guarantee as Florida State has been to Omaha 23 times, with countless All-Americans and future big leaguers, without a trophy. Clemson is next with 12 trips and no championship. Then Arkansas and ironically, North Carolina, with 11.
Omaha or Bust?
There is a portion of the fan base that has reached the point where if the Hogs aren’t one of the last eight teams standing, the season is a failure. That’s good and bad. Razorback fans expect a lot out of their sports teams and for the time being, the brand is strong across the board in Fayetteville. Razorback coaches and players also have high, but attainable, expectations. SEC Championships and CWS trips are expected, not hoped. That internal expectation comes with the territory given over the last five seasons, the Hogs have won 235 games with a 71.5% winning percentage. Undeniable, consistent success in baseball.
But it’s unfair and imprudent to think any season that doesn’t end in Omaha is a bust.
The 2021 Hogs fell short of the prize but if you don’t think that season’s regular season success, Kevin Kopps’ Golden Spikes Award winning season and so on didn’t lead to these next two top-ranked recruiting classes, you are being shortsighted.
If the Omaha-or-Bust crew only knew how hard it is to get there. DVH references this difficulty often and he would know. He’s been there nine times himself with two trips at Nebraska and now seven with the Razorbacks. Tennessee learned that lesson this year and others have in the past and more will in the future.
I experienced it firsthand as a Razorback freshman in 1990. The Hogs had been to Omaha in 1985, 1987 and 1989 and we were loaded again in 1990 spending almost the entire season in the top 10 and earning the #4 national seed. The format was different back then as only 48 teams made the tournament and there were eight regionals with six teams in each playing a double elimination bracket to advance to Omaha. We were sent to Wichita State, who had won it all in 1989, as the old George Cole Field wasn’t suitable to host a regional.
Our first round opponent was lightly regarded-Fordham out of New York. Thoe Rams threw out a lefty who couldn’t break a pane of glass velocity wise. We lost 8-5 and ended up in the loser’s bracket against WSU who had been upset by Georgia Southern. The Shockers hit a late homer to beat us. Despite our 47-16 record, #4 national seed and a SWC championship…our season was over. Short of a fourth trip in six seasons to Omaha.
Putting a Wrap on 2022
The lesson to be learned in all this is Omaha isn’t and never will be a guarantee. Not for the coaches, the players or the fans. That simple reminder should inspire the incoming and returning players to work and compete as nothing is a given. As good and as proud as Razorback baseball is and should continue to be, there are 301 other teams battling for the same coveted spot.
For the fans, I can guarantee that the players will perform better with unwavering, positive support. Show up to games, fill those seats and most of all, watch what you say on social media. These kids live on their phones all hours of the day when they don’t have a glove or a bat in their hand. They read what is said and it’s hard for a 18-23 year old to ignore the overly negative the same as the overly positive who blow sunshine all over the place.
Sure it’s OK to critique and coulda/shoulda/woulda – that’s part of being a fan. But the entire planet doesn’t need to hear or read your “expertise” from the comforts of your couch. And don’t get me wrong, we as fans don’t have to be all rainbows and ponies either. There will be strikes and gutters, ups and downs as the Jeff Lebowski once eloquently said, but you have to roll with the punches as it can turn on a dime. Good or bad.
For the 2022 Omahogs, the season turned the right way after most had written them off for dead. Same could be said for those that wanted to hand Tennessee the trophy before the tournament even started. Baseball’s many variables, which include who is on the mound and how they perform that day,makes it hard to predict over a season with 60+ games who can grind their way to the College World Series.
Great season, Razorbacks! It was one for the ages thanks to that postseason run. Just came up a little, tiny bit short of getting another crack at the big trophy.
Appreciation for Arkansas Baseball
The below is Facebook post from Jeff Ash, a member of the first Razorback team to play in the CWS finals:
I am a proud member of the 1979 Razorback Baseball team- the first team to earn a berth in the CWS. This post is about our bus ride home, from Omaha, after losing the National Championship game, twice, to Cal-State Fullerton.
As you can imagine, we were a dejected bunch of players and coaches. We were proud of what we had done during that amazing season, but very disappointed at how it had ended.
The bus ride seemed to take forever as we drove south from Omaha… Then we hit the Arkansas state line.
We were suddenly being escorted by a group of Arkansas State Police, Benton County Sheriffs, and officers from local police agencies as we drove the last 30 miles to Razorback Stadium.
This was before the days of I-540/49. This was back when you had to drive from Fayetteville to the state line by going north to Rogers, west to Bentonville, and then north to Bella Vista. Multiple intersections and stoplights on old Highway 71. It was a tedious drive back then.
Our police escort made sure that we were able to drive to the Broyles Complex without having to stop at any intersections. Bella Vista, Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale, and Fayetteville police officers had the intersections cleared, and we had a green light all the way from the border to Razorback Stadium. It was the coolest end to what was a very depressing drive.
Even cooler were the dozens of people there to greet us, thank us, and welcome us back home.
I have the best of memories from our first trip to Omaha. Amazing things happened that season and, especially, during that trip to Omaha. This memory ranks up there with the best of them.
We knew that we were loved and that we were appreciated.
Learn more about shortstop Jayson Jones, one of the crown jewels of the 2022 Arkansas recruiting class, here: