Colby Hale is right.
Last week, the Arkansas soccer coach said out loud what Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn has suggested and hinted at for the better part of the last 15 years.
The SEC Tournament does not matter.
Rather, it does not when you’re good. And Arkansas soccer is good.
The Razorbacks are the No. 1 seed in the league’s postseason tourney this week after notching a fourth regular-season crown over the last five years in the last week of the season. Arkansas is so good the Hogs didn’t need the final match to do it, either, clinching with two matches left to play.
Accordingly, they’re locked in to an NCAA Tournament berth. No matter what the results are at the SEC Tournament, too, the Razorbacks will be, at worst, a top-four seed in whichever region they’re placed when the Big Dance rolls around. So this week’s SEC soccer tournament in Pensacola, Fla., is for getting healthy and seeing what happens. Hale isn’t crazy enough to go for a win-at-all-costs approach with the proverbial bigger fish to fry, even though his team waxed Auburn 4-0 in their first match of the tournament Tuesday night.
“I know if I was a basketball coach or a baseball coach, I’d probably get killed for this, but I don’t care about the conference tournament that much,” Hale said on the Razorback Daily podcast. “For me, we use it to try and get a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament. I could (not) care less.”
The SEC Tournament and Arkansas Soccer
Good for Hale. Conference trophies are nice if you’re in a conference that earns one NCAA Tournament bid because that trophy comes with an invitation to a larger party. But Arkansas is not Jane-Come-Lately to the ball. The Hogs have made the NCAA Tournament every year but one since 2013. Last year, Arkansas was the No. 4 seed in the SECs and lost to Vanderbilt in their first game.
Hale’s bunch then went out and made the Elite Eight.
If Arkansas were to win the SEC title, or even just play for the crown, it would have needed to play Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. After that, the Hogs would turn around and start the NCAA Tournament on Nov. 10. For Hale, that’s just too much wear and tear on a team with an all-out style among the most aggressive in the nation.
“Soccer’s not designed to be played, it’s not meant to be played that (SEC Tournament) way,” Colby Hale told Razorback Daily co-hosts Quinn Grovey and Matt Zimmerman. “For us, playing three games in six days is not the way soccer is meant to be played.”
The SEC Tournament and Other Hog Sports
Dave Van Horn can sympathize. The Arkansas skipper had drawn some fire for saying similar things about the Diamond Hogs, although that’s dissipated some in the last year or two. Arkansas won the league’s tournament in 2021 and then were bounced – as the No. 1 overall national seed – in the Super Regionals in Fayetteville, falling to North Carolina State. The next year, Arkansas went two-and-out of the SEC Tournament and subsequently finished one game shy of playing for the national championship. The trade was not worth it.
Eric Musselman hasn’t been as vocal about it on the men’s basketball side of things. During Musselman’s first two non-COVID years at Arkansas, the Razorbacks didn’t need the SEC Tournament for a red-carpeted entry to the Big Dance, anyway. They earned No. 4 seeds en route to back-to-back runs to the Elite Eight. Last year, during the 2022-23 season, things were a bit different.
Arkansas basketball might have received an invitation to the 2023 NCAA Tournament even if the Razorbacks had not beaten Auburn in the first round of the SEC tournament, but it was hardly a lock. The Hogs were the No. 10-seed in the tourney hovering on, at best, No. 10-seed territory.
In that case, Arkansas needed the all-against-all postseason qualifier. But, on the flipside, Arkansas didn’t go all-out in order to try to win, either. Sure, another victory over Texas A&M in the next round after Auburn might have cemented things and left zero doubt on Selection Sunday, but there was only limited doubt, anyway. An Arkansas SEC Championship would not have lifted the Razorbacks from their ultimate No. 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament to, say, a No. 6.
Similar Approach as Arkansas Baseball
Arkansas soccer, in that regard, is more like Arkansas baseball. The Razorbacks aren’t earning a No. 1 seed and the difference between a No. 2 and a No. 3 is small considering the two are on the same side of the bracket. On the other side, if the Hogs had lost their first game of the SEC Tournament, even as a No. 1 seed, that should not have dropped them down to the No. 4 line.
So what’s Hale playing for? Pride, really. No coach is actively going to try to lose. Besides, like he said, there is some importance there for the players. And in the end, they’re the ones he will rely on to capture ultimate glory.
“I’m sure the kids care,” he said. “And because they care, I care. But I want to go ahead and win the NCAA Tournament.”
For sure, it matters to someone like forward Anna Podojil, likely the only four-time All-SEC first-teamer* in Razorback team sports history. Or Bentonville native Kate Carter, who scored her first collegiate goal on Tuesday and gleefully jumped into the arms of her teammate:
For Colby Hale, Eric Musselman and Dave Van Horn**, it’s a grand problem to have, really, this being in a race – at a track-and-field school, no less – to see who can become the athletic department’s first across the finish line.
How Watch Arkansas vs Mississippi State
Date: Thursday, Nov. 2
Location: Ashton Brosnaham Soccer Complex (Pensacola, Fla.)
Time/TV Schedule: 5 p.m. CT (SEC Network)
What’s at Stake: Winner advances to the SEC Tournament Final vs. the winner of Georgia-Texas A&M on Sunday
*Podojil, a fifth-year senior, earned second-team All-SEC honors this season. Other All-SEC selections include her sister, Ellie, as well as first-teamers Ava Tankersley and Bea Franklin.
**It’s possible none of them will win this “race” among the Hogs’ current team sports coaches if Arkansas volleyball coach Jason Watson or Arkansas softball coach Courtney Deifel score a national title first.
Watch the exquisite placement below for a taste of why Podojil ranks as the best offensive player in Arkansas soccer history:
Listen to Colby Hale’s interview starting at 20:00 below:
More coverage of Arkansas soccer and Arkansas baseball from BoAS…