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Diamond Hogs exceed expectations all the way to Omaha

Arkansas is heading back to the College World Series.
Arkansas is heading back to the College World Series. (Arkansas Athletics)

HawgBeat's coverage of the Razorbacks' Road to Redemption in Omaha is brought to you by Arkansas Oral Surgery, which has offices located in Conway and Russellville.

FAYETTEVILLE — When Dave Van Horn addressed the team before they left for Christmas break last December, he told his players they wouldn’t be ranked in any of the preseason polls.

That was probably naive considering the respect the veteran coach has in the college baseball world, but expectations definitely weren’t high. The Razorbacks were anywhere from No. 12 to No. 25 in the various rankings.

Arkansas checked in at No. 16 in our preseason composite poll, which put it right on the edge of hosting a regional, but it far exceeded that by earning the No. 5 national seed and - with a 14-1 win over Ole Miss on Monday - advancing to the College World Series for a second straight year.

“It's amazing what you can do with a little bit of hard work and a little bit of luck and a bunch of guys who believe,” Van Horn said. “I think this has been one of the most gratifying seasons I've ever had as a coach because we weren't expected to do much.”

Many thought it would be somewhat of a rebuilding year for the Razorbacks.

They lost six of nine players from their starting lineup, the top two pitchers from their weekend rotation and their top two middle relievers to the MLB Draft and graduation.

Sure, there were key pieces returning like preseason All-Americans Heston Kjerstad, Casey Martin, Dominic Fletcher and Matt Cronin, but there were plenty of question marks beyond that.

Coming off an inconsistent season, how would Isaiah Campbell handle taking over the ace role from an undefeated Blaine Knight? (He’s been even better, going 12-1 with a 2.26 ERA and 115 strikeouts.)

After being a bench player for two years, how would Jack Kenley do in an everyday role in Carson Shaddy’s spot? (He’s exploded for 13 home runs after hitting none before this season.)

Could Casey Opitz fill the shoes left by Grant Koch? (He’s been arguably the best defensive catcher in the SEC and come up with clutch hit after clutch hit.)

Making the jump from the OVC to the SEC and changing positions because of offseason surgery, could Trevor Ezell give the Razorbacks production at first base like Jared Gates in the postseason? (He’s been much better - in the regular-season and postseason - at the plate, while earning a spot on the SEC All-Defensive Team despite standing just 5-foot-8.)

How would Arkansas replace the innings of Jake Reindl and Barrett Loseke? (Jacob Kostyshock, Kevin Kopps, Cody Scroggins and Kole Ramage have done an admirable job out of the bullpen.)

The list goes on and on, as several players stepped up to help the Razorbacks make this more of a reloading year than rebuilding year.

“This team is talented enough to do some damage up there if we play together,” Van Horn said. “This is a team that, from about the middle of the season on, behind closed doors, (I said), ‘Hey, I think we're a little better than we thought and the players are getting better.’”

Even the guys on the field during last season’s heartbreaking loss to Oregon State in the College World Series finals had to come to terms with just how close they were.

Every nationally televised game the Razorbacks have played has shown the pop foul that fell between three players. They saw it themselves while awaiting their postseason draw at the beginning of the NCAA Tournament selection show on ESPNU.

There was seemingly no way of escaping the play, as it is now part of college baseball lore, so they’ve had to figure out a balance of using it as motivation and trying to push the memory out of their minds.

“It left sort of a bitter taste in our mouth, but there are also guys on the team that have contributed to get us back to Omaha that weren’t even a part of that moment,” Kjerstad said. “They didn’t know what it felt like.

“At the end of the day, we’re just focused on this season. We kind of turned the page over from last year and just wanted to get back there again.”

The Razorbacks did just that, but it wasn’t easy. After starting the year 22-4, they hit a midseason lull in late-March/early-April.

They dropped two straight games to Ole Miss to lose their first series at Baum-Walker Stadium since 2017, followed it up with an embarrassing 10-run loss to in-state foe UALR and then blew a 3-0 lead in the series opener at Auburn.

It nearly stretched to a five-game losing streak, but Arkansas found a way to win a dramatic 15-inning game over the Tigers a few hours after it let the opener slip away.

“I think about that second game of the doubleheader against Auburn, what a fight that was,” Van Horn said. “(After that) I thought we were going to be a team to be reckoned with and the players proved me right.”

Arkansas also ended the season with a thud, losing five of its last seven games entering the NCAA Tournament. However, it swept through the Fayetteville Regional despite facing Nick Lodolo, TCU’s ace left-hander who was picked seventh overall in the MLB Draft, along the way.

That set up a showdown with Ole Miss, the No. 12 national seed. The Rebels had won three of five matchups this season and four straight series against the Razorbacks, ranking up there with LSU as their top nemesis.

Sure enough, it came down to a deciding Game 3 and Van Horn’s message to the team was same as last year before the third game of the super regional against South Carolina.

“Having two car payments, a house payment, a wife and three kids and having to come home and tell them you just lost your job - that's pressure,” Van Horn said. “I said, 'This isn't pressure. This is fun.’”

Just as they did against the Gamecocks, the Razorbacks came out loose and took it to the Rebels. Scroggins came out of the pen early and shut them down while the offense piled up runs like it had earlier in the season.

Sandwiched around an eight-run loss, Arkansas won 11-2 and 14-1, leaving quite the impression on Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco.

“With Campbell on the mound, it is hard to think they would not be the favorites with that offense,” Bianco said. “The bullpen is much better and improved… Cronin has always been great, but the other pieces are better now than they were in March and I think they have all the parts to have a lot of success in Omaha.”

It will be Arkansas’ 10th trip to the College World Series, but first time it has made it in consecutive years. Van Horn has been at the helm for six of those appearances and - including two at Nebraska - eight total trips.

“I love going to Omaha, but I really, really, truly mean it when I say I want (the players) to get there and I just kind of want to go with them,” Van Horn said. “It was just an incredible ride this season. Win or lose, it’s going to finish in Omaha and that’s where you want to finish.”

Getting to the College World Series is a great accomplishment, but the Razorbacks - coaches, players and fans alike - have their eyes on more than that.

Radio play-by-play man Phil Elson’s call of the final out Monday afternoon sums up their goal.

“Hey Omaha, start the preparation,” Elson said as Arkansas dog piled on the field. “They’re coming from Fayetteville, they’re coming from Little Rock, from Fort Smith, from Pine Bluff, from all four corners of the Natural State.

“College baseball’s Emerald City is the destination. A bright red Razorback caravan is headed to Nebraska and this time, we’re coming for the whole damn thing.”