No. 1 ranking reflects respect, Van Horn says

By: Jeff Halpern
Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn speaks at the Downtown Tipoff Club in North Little Rock on Monday.
Photo by Karen E. Segrave
Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn speaks at the Downtown Tipoff Club in North Little Rock on Monday.

— Arkansas Razorbacks baseball fans can’t complain about their team being underrated this year.

When Arkansas opens its regular season Friday against Western Illinois, the Hogs will do so with extreme expectations.

They enter the season ranked No. 1 in three polls - Collegiate Baseball, USA Today and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association - No. 2 by and No. 3 by Baseball America.

“It’s a great honor for our program,” said Van Horn, who was the guest speaker at Monday’s Downtown Tip-Off Club luncheon in North Little Rock. “I don’t know how much some voters know about us, but it shows they have a lot of respect for our program. It seems as if they don’t vote us high, then we’ll make them look bad.”

Last season’s finish has a lot to do with the preseason pomp.

Arkansas came within one victory over South Carolina of advancing to the best-of-three College World Series championship series in Omaha, Neb., ending with a 46-22 record.

Throw in the return of 10 pitchers from a staff that had a 2.83 ERA a year ago, along with six position players who started 30 or more games, and national respect is being heaped on the Hogs, whether they want it or not.

“We’re excited about the season,” Van Horn said. “The thing I want to do is take the pressure off our players. I know LSU thinks they’re going to the World Series. Vanderbilt and Kentucky have some of the best teams they’ve had in a while. It’s a grind, a long season and we have to be patient. You’re going to have some good days and bad days.”

Arkansas had its share of bad days last season, finishing 16-14 in SEC play and then going 0-2 in the SEC Tournament, before turning things around.

The Razorbacks went 3-0 in the Houston Regional, defeating Sam Houston State twice and host Rice. They overcame an 8-1 loss to Baylor in the first game of the super regional at Baylor to win the last two games 5-4 and 1-0 in 10 innings to advance to the College World Series.

At Omaha, the Razorbacks defeated Kent State 8-1 and South Carolina 2-1 before losing 2-0 and 3-2 to the Gamecocks.

“I’d like to thank our team for the run we had last year,” Van Horn said. “Last year, after we lost both our games in the SEC Tournament, we sat down in the infield and I asked them if they had any fight in them, and they assured me they were ready. We went back to the hotel, packed our stuff and rode the bus back home that night and for the next four days, we practiced twice a day and didn’t have any complaints. They showed me they were serious.”

A return to the College World Series won’t be an easy task for an Arkansas team that is scheduled to play three-game series with seven SEC teams ranked in the preseason, along with nonconference games against Arizona State, Oklahoma, Missouri State and New Mexico, who are also ranked.

“Oklahoma, New Mexico and Missouri State are all projected to win their leagues,” Van Horn said. “This is an incredible home schedule we’re playing.

“When you play in a league as tough as ours, it prepares you for whatever you’ll see and when you get into the regionals, sometimes you don’t see a team as talented as some of the teams you see in the regular season.”

Sports, Pages 17 on 02/12/2013