Diamond Hogs draw 3 conference champions for Fayetteville Regional
HawgBeat's coverage of the Diamond Hogs' Road to Omaha is brought to you by CJ's Butcher Boy Burgers, which has locations in Fayetteville and Russellville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Just moments into Monday’s selection show, Arkansas was revealed as the No. 1 overall seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
It could have been the delay on ESPN2’s live look-in, but the Razorbacks didn’t appear to have much of a reaction to the announcement. For head coach Dave Van Horn and the players, it was no surprise after putting together one of the most dominant regular seasons in recent memory, capped by the first SEC Tournament championship in program history.
“It was different because we knew we were going to be the No. 1 seed,” Van Horn said. “There wasn’t any drama there, just more of a relaxed feeling. Now it’s moving on from the tournament championship and putting that behind us and getting our mind right and getting physically ready to play this weekend.”
Even without the mystery and apprehension some teams experienced during the bracket reveal, Van Horn admitted that it was “still really special” to see Arkansas flash up on the screen.
Following the announcement of the top eight national seeds, the Fayetteville Regional was the first one shown during the bracket reveal. Joining the Razorbacks in the four-team, double-elimination quadrant are Nebraska, Northeastern and NJIT.
The winner of that regional will face the winner of the Ruston Regional, which features No. 16 overall seed and host Louisiana Tech, as well as North Carolina State, Alabama and Rider.
As one of the top-eight seeds, Arkansas would host the best-of-three super regional, meaning it wouldn’t have to leave the comforts of Baum-Walker Stadium before the College World Series in Omaha.
“With our fan base, this beautiful ball park, it’s where we want to be,” Van Horn said. “You can rest up a little bit instead of, we just got back, you’d have to pack up and get on the road again.”
Before they can worry about a super regional, though, the Razorbacks have to get by NJIT in their first game of the postseason. First pitch is scheduled for 2 p.m. CT Friday and it will be streamed on ESPN3. Nebraska and Northeastern will play the late game, with first pitch scheduled for 7 p.m.
The early start time might not be ideal for fans who have to work, but there is strategy behind it. In fact, Van Horn said he got the advice from legendary Rice head coach Wayne Graham.
“You get that first game in and then some weather rolls in, you’d hate to play that night game and the two teams in front of you play and then you’re sitting there and next thing you know it’s 2 in the morning and you’re not playing,” Van Horn said. “Then you’ve got to get up and play that game and then play another one later that day, whether you win or lose.”
NJIT has an unimpressive 26-22 overall record and 23-17 mark in conference play, but it has played great down the stretch. After starting the season 3-12, the Highlanders have won 18 of their last 22 games, including a program record nine in a row.
The last two of those came in the America East Conference Tournament and were dramatic victories, as NJIT beat Albany with a four-run eighth inning and then won in walk-off fashion with a pair of runs in the ninth to beat Maine.
That set up a showdown with Stony Brook - the Cinderella of the 2012 College World Series - in the conference championship game, but they got just two-plus innings in before heavy rain and wind forced a cancelation. As the only remaining unbeaten team in the tournament, NJIT received its conference’s automatic bid.
The Highlanders’ batting average (.255) and ERA (4.66) don’t jump off the page, but they are 61 of 67 on stolen base attempts this season. That could make them a challenge for Casey Opitz, who has thrown out 11 of 29 potential base stealers this year, but Van Horn said it isn’t all on him.
“Controlling the running game starts with the pitcher,” Van Horn said. “The catcher can only do what he can do. The pitcher’s got to give you a chance, so it’ll be something we’ll definitely address. It’s a big part of their offense, it looks like.”
Regardless the result of their first game, the Razorbacks will face either Nebraska or Northeastern on Saturday.
In just his second year as a head coach, Will Bolt led the Cornhuskers to a regular-season Big Ten championship. The Big Ten didn’t play a conference tournament, so Nebraska received the automatic bid after going 31-12 without any non-conference games. That was 3.5 games better than second-place Maryland.
Before he was a coach, Bolt was a member of Van Horn’s first recruiting class at Nebraska and went on to be a four-year starter.
“He’s a winner,” Van Horn said. “I’m really proud of Will. He’s worked hard and he knew what he wanted to do as a young person and assistant coach. He got his shot at Nebraska and he’s taken full advantage of it.”
There would be plenty of storylines if Arkansas and Nebraska met in the regional. On top of Bolt being a former player for Van Horn, the Cornhuskers were Van Horn’s first major college baseball job. He built it into a premier program, taking Nebraska to the College World Series twice.
“I just see Nebraska as another quality team that we’re probably going to have to play,” Van Horn said. “It’s going to be good to see Will and some of the guys, but I didn’t get all emotional on one side or disbelief on the other. Nothing surprises me now.”
The 3 seed in the Fayetteville Regional is Northeastern, a Colonial Athletic Association program in the Boston area. Although the Huskies made it all the way to Omaha in 1966, they’ve been in the postseason just twice in the previous 16 years.
This year’s appearance comes after they went 36-10 and dominated the CAA, winning the regular-season title with a 20-3 record and also capturing the conference title to receive an automatic bid. Northeastern is strong at the plate (.298 batting average, .864 OPS) and on the mound (3.12 ERA, 3.2 K/BB ratio).
Van Horn said he hasn’t decided who he’ll start Friday against NJIT. That announcement will likely come Thursday, after the Razorbacks have had three days of practice in preparation for the regional.