Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
Hogs: No. 1 nice now, best at end
NWA Media/ANDY SHUPE -- Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn speaks to his infield Friday, Sept. 7, 2012, prior to the Razorbacks' first practice of the fall season.
FAYETTEVILLE Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn has plenty of reasons to be excited about the baseball season.
The Razorbacks opened practice Friday at Baum Stadium ranked as the nation’s No. 1 team in the USA Today coaches and Collegiate Baseball polls. The Razorbacks are third in the Baseball America preseason poll.
“It’s exciting for our whole team and our program,” said Van Horn, who has led the Razorbacks to 10 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and three College World Series berths with a 405-223 record. “I think obviously it has to do with we have some good starting pitchers back and we have a tremendous bullpen.
“I feel like nationally the program is highly respected now.”
Van Horn said being No. 1 in the coaches’ poll is especially meaningful. The Razorbacks received 10 first-place votes from the 27 coaches.
“That might be the poll that I would use if I was asked, because we’re talking coaches from across the country that pretty much know the ins and outs and make phone calls,” said Van Horn, who doesn’t vote in the poll. “For them to put us ahead of a couple of people, that was nice. It’s an honor, but it’s just a beginning.
“In baseball, we play a lot of games and it’s going to fluctuate. I just would like to hang around the top 10 all year. That means we’re having a real good season, we’re consistent, and we have a chance to host a regional and go from there.”
The Razorbacks said they want to keep the No. 1 ranking in perspective.
“I think one of our strengths is our maturity,” junior pitcher Barrett Astin said. “A lot of guys know what’s going on around here and just have to do it. It’s good to be predicted so high, but we have to play up to it in the season.”
Astin said he doesn’t believe the No. 1 ranking puts extra pressure on the Razorbacks.
“We know we’re going to have highs and we’re going to have lows,” Astin said. “We’re just trying to take care of our business, and hopefully we’re No. 1 in the end. “
Senior outfielder Matt Vinson said the older players will make sure the newcomers don’t put too much stock in being No. 1.
“It’s just a preseason ranking,” Vinson said. “ It’s a great honor, but we know it’s not how you start but how you finish. We’ve got a great group, so they’re just following our lead.”
Arkansas returns 10 pitchers from last season’s staff that had a 2.83 team earned run average and helped the Razorbacks reach the College World Series before losing to South Carolina, 3-2, to finish a game shy of the championship series with a 46-22 record.
Junior starter Ryne Stanek and junior reliever Colby Suggs have been named to some preseason All-America teams. Astin is expected to be a key as a starter or reliever.
The Razorbacks return six position players who made 30 or more starts last season, led by junior Dominic Ficociello, who has moved from first base to second.
Van Horn said he’s also excited about newcomers such as freshmen Tyler Spoon, Willie Schwanke and Isaac Hellbusch.
“We’re a little inexperienced, but there are guys pushing each other,” Van Horn said. “Over the past couple of years, if a guy was struggling at the plate, we just kind of stuck with him. Now he might have to sit down a game or two and watch and try to get things straightened out and give another guy a chance.”
The Razorbacks have three weeks of practice before opening against Western Illinois on Feb. 15.
“We can’t wait,” Vinson said. “We’re already tired of practice, and it’s our first day.”
Van Horn talked to the players about being ranked highly before they went on Christmas break.
“They didn’t get all giddy about it,” Van Horn said. “They know it’s just a starting point.”
Sports, Pages 23 on 01/26/2013