Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way: McEntires Rise to the Challenge

Will McEntire, Arkansas baseball
photo credit: Craven Whitlow / Madison McEntire

He wasn’t supposed to pitch. When he returned to the locker room to retrieve the lineup card for the series finale against LSU, Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn noticed a new name at the bottom of it: Will McEntire.

It wasn’t supposed to be there and stood out because it was in black ink, not in red like the others.

“I guess he wrote it in there,” Van Horn said postgame. 

Van Horn is sure glad he did, as he called on the Bryant native to record the final four outs to complete a 7-5 win and a sweep of No. 8 LSU less than 48 hours after throwing 62 pitches in the series opener.

The numbers speak for themselves. McEntire has used his Kevin Kopps-esque cutter to perfection. Ahead of this weekend’s series at Alabama, his 1.75 ERA is actually slightly better than Hagen Smith (1.76), plus he’s first on the team in appearances (15) and leads all Arkansas relievers in innings (36) and strikeouts (45).

Underneath the impeccable cutter and fiery competitive nature, though, there’s a different side to McEntire that has come into focus in his fifth year with the Razorbacks.

Early Days of Will McEntire

The entire McEntire family bleeds Razorback Red. Madison McEntire, Will’s dad, is a native of Marshall – a small town of just 1,300 people where there isn’t much to do other than be a fan of the Hogs. 

“I went to school here,” Madison said. “I grew up here. I’ve been a fan my whole life. It’s meant a lot to see him wear the jersey.” 

The journey to get to this point has been far from linear. Becoming one of the elite bullpen arms in the SEC has had its fair share of unique challenges along the way. 

For starters, McEntire got cracked in the side of the head while just fooling around. Classic 10-year-old shenanigans. 

“[They] were doing like a home run derby,” McEntire said. “I didn’t have an L-Screen. I was throwing and some guy hit one back and cracked me right in the head.”

Thankfully no surgery was needed. Much to the surprise of his dad at the time, but perhaps not to Razorback fans who have seen him pitch, McEntire hardly missed a beat after recovering.

“I was kinda worried that he might get scared of getting hit again,” Madison said.

McEntire only remembers how torturous it was not to be able to play baseball and take the ball for his team. 

“I missed a lot of baseball for a while and I got to come back and help my team win a state championship,” McEntire said. “That’s where I really grew to appreciate and love the game.”

Cancer Throws a Curveball

In an instant though, baseball became minuscule. Madison was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in October 2017, when Will was a junior in high school. 

McEntire didn’t quite grasp the enormity of the situation at the time, but as he has grown older, the weight of cancer has dawned on him.

“I didn’t realize at the time that he could be taken away from me,” McEntire said. “I was just more of like, ‘My dad’s young, he’ll recover no problem.’ It’s just me being oblivious to the situation.” 

Madison knew deep down inside that things never got that dire. Doctors told him that they had caught the cancer early and he had a 75% chance of surviving. 

Still, it was incredibly emotional for Madison when Will’s high school team had a surprise up their sleeve when Madison entered remission on senior day in 2018. 

“I was sitting behind the plate in my rocking chair,” Madison said. “They came over and unrolled a big sign which I still have and it said, ‘Congratulations! Cancer free.’ The whole team had signed it and that was pretty cool. It teared me up a little bit.”

Pitching for a Cause with Arkansas Baseball

Which brings us all back to the here and now. The rocking chair is long gone as Madison cheers from the stands of Baum-Walker Stadium. His son is enjoying the best year of his college career in perhaps his final season* all while having the peace of mind that his dad is cancer-free.

“I keep messing with my dad,” McEntire said. ”I’m like ‘How are you going to get tickets now? You don’t have a plug-in to get them anymore.’”

Taking inspiration from former Razorback kicker Cam Little’s Kicking for a Cause campaign, McEntire wanted to donate to a charitable cause based on the number of strikeouts that he amassed.

The charity of choice? An easy one. The Central Arkansas Radiation Therapy Institute (CARTI), the same place that took care of Madison during his treatment and recovery. McEntire has pledged $5 for every strikeout he gets this season.

Although he insists that it happens naturally, perhaps it is no coincidence that McEntire’s strikeout numbers are way up. He’s more than halfway to his strikeout total from last year in about a third of the batters faced. 

“Thankfully he’s in remission and not showing any signs,” McEntire said. “Just wanted to give back and help people who aren’t fortunate enough to help themselves. The way I want to do it is for the money to go to people who need help with transportation or need help paying their medical bills and they can’t do it themselves.” 

McEntire is important to this team, really important. Take it from the skipper himself. 

“He’s like a rubber arm,” Van Horn said. “[It] never bothers him. It’s kind of like having a security blanket in a way. Every team that’s good had a guy like that in the bullpen.” 

Who knows if this is the year that the Razorbacks chase down the elusive national title. If they do, McEntire will have a huge part in doing so. If they don’t, being the consummate in-state Razorback isn’t a bad second prize either. Or perhaps after everything the McEntire family has been through, that is the real first prize.

The campaign has already raised nearly $9,500. Fans can still contribute here either by strikeout or with a flat donation.


*Will McEntire has an extra year of eligibility left thanks to COVID-19

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