Best of the Year: Top 10 Razorbacks of 2018

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Monday, December 31, 2018
Arkansas pitcher Blaine Knight (16) pumps his fist as he walks off the mound after the sixth inning of Game 1 of the NCAA College World Series baseball finals between Oregon State and Arkansas in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, June 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Arkansas pitcher Blaine Knight (16) pumps his fist as he walks off the mound after the sixth inning of Game 1 of the NCAA College World Series baseball finals between Oregon State and Arkansas in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, June 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

10. Lexi Jacobus, Track and Field

Jacobus, an Olympian in 2016, claimed a national title in the pole vault at the NCAA Indoor Championships after clearing 15’-3.5” and earned first team All-American honors. She was also a bronze medalist at the SEC Indoor Championships, clearing 14’-4.5”.

During Arkansas’ outdoor season, Jacobus competed in seven meets and cleared an NCAA-best 15’-3” at the SEC Outdoor Championships, winning a conference title. She would then go on to claim a runner-up finish in the pole vault at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.

9. Mary Haff, Softball

Arkansas softball enjoyed a breakout 2018 and freshman pitcher Mary Haff was the biggest reason why. Haff, a Winter Haven, Fla., native, won a school-record 29 games in the circle, leading the Razorbacks to a 42-win season - third most in program history.

In 31 starts, Haff recorded 19 complete games, seven one-hitters and the seventh no-hitter in school history in a 9-0 win over Northern Colorado on March 2. During postseason play, Haff threw complete-game shutouts against DePaul and Wichita State in the NCAA Fayetteville Regional and led the Razorbacks to their first Super Regional berth.

Haff earned second team All-SEC honors and was one of three finalists for National Fastpitch Coaches Association Freshman of the Year.

8. Brooke Schultz, Diving

In March, Schultz claimed the third diving individual national title in school history with a school- and personal-record 399.45 in the 3-meter finals of the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships in Columbus, Ohio.

A two-time SEC champion, Schultz climbed back to win Arkansas’ second three-meter title and first since 1985 after trailing by 27.15 points with two dives to go.

She recorded her two best dives of the finals, scoring a 67.50 on a back 2 1/2-somersault pike, followed by a 72.00 on the inward 2 1/2-somersault pike to edge out Nevada’s Sharae Zheng, who scored a 394.95.

7. Matt Cronin, Baseball

Arkansas' dominant left-hander closer, Cronin set the Razorbacks program record for saves in a season with 14 in 2018, breaking former closer and Arkansas student assistant coach Colby Suggs' record of 13 set in 2013.

Cronin set the school record for saves by recording three consecutive outs with a runner at first base in the ninth inning in Game 1 of the College World Series finals in Omaha. Ultra-reliable at the end of the Arkansas bullpen, Cronin did blow two saves in 2018 - against Mississippi State when he unknowingly pitched with mono, and Game 2 of the CWS finals vs. Oregon State.

Perhaps much more than the saves record, Cronin will be remembered this year for a singular gesture following a regular-season win in March against longtime rival Texas. After slamming the door on a 7-5 win over the Longhorns at Baum Stadium, Cronin, who had just picked up his second save of the season, stared into the Texas dugout and threw the downward Hook 'Em sign.

6. Maria Fassi, Golf

Fassi had a banner 2018 as she was named SEC Golfer of the Year in May and the winner of the ANNIKA Award as the top player in women's college golf in June.

She joined former Razorbacks golfer Stacy Lewis as the only other player in program history to win the league award and win four or more tournaments in a season.

Fassi was the first winner of the ANNIKA Award who did not play at either Duke or UCLA.

A junior from Pachuca, Mexico, Fassi won an Arkansas-record seven tournaments in 2018 and went 3-0 in match play to help the Razorbacks capture their first SEC championship. Fassi rallied down the stretch to take the individual title at the NCAA Austin Regional while helping the Razorbacks claim their first regional title.

5. Daniel Gafford, Basketball

Gafford's rim-punishing dunks and shot-blocking prowess made him one of the SEC's best in 2018. He came into his own by February in his first run through the league, averaging 14.4 points on 61 percent from the floor, 6.6 rebounds and three blocks per game.

His block and windmill dunk against Vanderbilt made waves nationally and showcased exactly why professional scouts salivate over his potential at the next level. He scored 21 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and finished with seven blocks against then-No. 14 Auburn on Arkansas' Senior Night, becoming just the second player in a Power 5 conference (Mo Bamba, Texas) to reach those figures last season.

In March, Gafford added 16 points and 12 rebounds in helping Arkansas snap an eight-game losing streak vs. Florida, beating the Gators in the SEC Tournament to advance to the SEC Tournament finals. As an exclamation point on the win, Gafford threw down another windmill slam in the final minute. Ten days after the Razorbacks fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Butler, Gafford announced he would return to Arkansas for his sophomore season.

Gafford averaged 19 points and eight rebounds in November, including a career-high 27 points on 12/15 shooting, 12 rebounds and three blocks in a narrow win against Indiana. He grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds in Arkansas' win over UTSA in Little Rock on Dec. 15 as well after matching a career-best 12 rebounds in three other games this season. The sophomore has six double-doubles in 12 games, doubling his freshman total by the New Year.

This December, Gafford averaged 16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and nearly three blocks per game in a career-high 29.7 minutes per game.

4. Carson Shaddy, Baseball

The Fayetteville native was without question the heart and soul and, at times, the emotional leader of the Razorbacks' run to the College World Series. Wearing the Arkansas uniform meant much more to Shaddy than the average athlete.

Shaddy hit a team-best .395 in SEC play in 24 games, helping the Razorbacks win 18 league games. Right-fielder Eric Cole was second on the team with a .346 average. Shaddy missed seven games after being hit on the left hand by a pitch April 21 at Mississippi State.

Shaddy was named first team All-SEC by the league's coaches in May after leading the Razorbacks with a .354 regular-season average. He batted .330 in 59 games this spring, hit a career-best 13 home runs in the middle of Arkansas' record-setting offense and drove in 55 runs - second behind freshman Heston Kjerstad.

In June, Shaddy was drafted by the Washington Nationals with the 311th overall pick.

3. Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford, Basketball

Macon and Barford, members of Mike Anderson's 2016 recruiting class, made a lasting impression on Arkansas basketball in their two seasons as Razorbacks, especially so in 2018.

In their final game in Bud Walton Arena, the duo became the seventh and eighth players in program history to reach 1,000 career points in two seasons. They did it in their own ways, too, Macon surpassing the mark with his fourth 3-pointer of the first half against Auburn, and Barford with what became a deadly step-back jumper.

Perhaps Macon's biggest, most-memorable game came in January on the road against Georgia. He finished with a team-high 25 points in the double-overtime win, scoring Arkansas' final 16 points in a truly remarkable crunch-time shooting performance. Macon also scored 20-plus points in seven consecutive games from Jan. 20-Feb. 6, becoming the first Arkansas player to do so since Corliss Williamson.

Barford averaged nearly 18 points per game as a senior and became one of the league's most efficient 3-point shooters. He averaged 27.5 points in two games against Florida in 2018, guiding the Razorbacks to a win over the Gators in the SEC Tournament semifinals with a 27-point night. Barford recorded a pair of 20-plus point, 10-rebound double-doubles over his final six games as a Razorback.

Rarely do junior college transfers make a collective impact like Macon and Barford. Aside from their on-court star power, their chemistry and personality away from the floor and in press conference settings was second to none.

2. Casey Martin and Heston Kjerstad, Baseball

Martin and Kjerstad wasted no time jumping onto the national scene as freshmen.

The duo led Arkansas' power-driven offense in batting average - .345 and .332, respectively - and combined for 27 home runs and 107 runs batted in. Kjerstad was one of just two players - Eric Cole - to play and start in each of the Razorbacks' 69 games in 2018.

In May, Kjerstad was named SEC Freshman of the Year, becoming the first Arkansas freshman to win the award. He led all SEC freshmen in batting average (.348), runs scored (49), hits (72) and total bases (119) in the regular season.

Among his many memorable moments of the year, a home-run saving catch on Dallas Baptist slugger Devlin Granberg’s towering shot to left in Arkansas’ clinching win at the Fayetteville Regional on June 3 stands out. He also made a similar catch in the second inning against Texas Tech at the College World Series.

Martin started 29 of Arkansas' 30 SEC games this spring and batted .333, hitting three home runs. His on-base percentage (.407) was third-best among Arkansas' everyday players and he finished with a team-high eight stolen bases. The SEC All-Freshman team selection was D1Baseball.com's pick as the top prospect in the 2020 MLB Draft this fall.

1. Blaine Knight, Baseball

Knight's stellar 2018 season actually began in July 2017 after announcing he would return to Arkansas for his junior year in a Player's Tribune-style essay.

He capped the heartfelt message with "We'll see you in Omaha!" And he more than delivered, headlining Arkansas’ pitching staff on its run to the College World Series finals.

Knight finished 2018 with a flawless 14-0 record and was the Razorbacks' regular Friday-night starter. His 14 wins - 19 starts - were good for second-most in the nation behind only Oregon State's Luke Heimlich, who won 16.

Knight, though, would beat Heimlich in Game 1 of the College World Series finals. Heimlich was the last in what became a long list of pitchers Knight beat head-to-head in 2018. He also edged Florida's top two arms in Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar, Auburn's Casey Mize, Ole Miss' Ryan Rolison and would have been in line for a win against Kentucky's Sean Hjelle if not for a line drive off the shin that forced an early exit.

In June, Knight was selected by the Baltimore Orioles with the 87th pick in the MLB Draft.

Honorable mentions

De'Jon Harris, Football: Led the SEC in tackles with 118, becoming the first Razorback to record back-to-back 100-tackle seasons since Jerry Franklin did so each season from 2008-2011. He finished with a career-high 16 tackles in a 24-17 loss to Texas A&M in September. For his play this fall, Harris was named an All-SEC performer by The Associated Press. In December, a team spokesperson confirmed Harris would return to Arkansas for his senior season after hinting on Twitter that he would return in early December.

Gilbert Boit, Cross Country: Boit was the individual champion at the SEC cross country meet in Auburn, Ala. He finished the 8,000-meter race in 22:20.13. A transfer from Tennessee Tech, Boit was Arkansas’ 15th individual champion at the SEC meet and first since Alex George in 2016.

Armon Watts, Football: Watts enjoyed a breakout season on the Razorbacks' defensive line as a senior, totaling 49 tackles, 8.5 for loss, and a team-high seven sacks. He also forced three fumbles. Watts' seven sacks were the most by a Razorback since 2015. Prior to this fall, Watts did not have a sack in 114 career snaps. Watts will play in the 94th East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 19 in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Mason Overstreet, Golf: Overstreet began the spring schedule with a T-8 finish at the Sea Best Invitational, carding a 65 in the second round and 69 in the third. Overstreet recorded four top-10 finishes and seven top-20 finishes in 2018. Each of his last 28 rounds counted toward the team score. He carded eight rounds in the 60s, including one each in Arkansas' final four events of the year.

Autumn Storms, Softball: Storms, a sophomore, was a strong complement in the circle to Haff, winning 12 games - six complete games - and recording a 2.67 ERA over 152.1 innings pitched. Storms tossed a no-hitter March 3 in a 7-0 win over Central Connecticut State one night after Haff’s no-hitter against Northern Colorado.

Rakeem Boyd, Football: Led the Razorbacks with 734 rushing yards on 132 carries after arriving from Independence Community College late in the summer. Boyd totaled 899 all-purpose yards, including 165 through the air. La'Michael Pettway finished second on the team with 499 all-purpose yards. Boyd also became the first Arkansas running back to rush for 100 yards against Alabama since Darren McFadden in 2007. That performance kicked off a streak of four consecutive games in which Boyd rushed for at least 99 yards.

Sarah Shaffer, Gymnastics: Shaffer was the third Razorback in program history to be named SEC Freshman of the Year, joining Amanda Wellick (2014) and Paige Zaziski (2015). Shaffer recorded multiple 9.900 scores and was named Freshman of the Week three times, which led the SEC.

Taliyah Brooks, Track and Field: Won an SEC and NCAA title in the pentathlon and also earned first team All-American honors at the NCAA Indoor Championships. At the Outdoor SEC Championships, Brooks recorded the third-best time in program history in the 100-meter hurdles (12.94).

Katrina Robinson, Cross Country: In November, Robinson became the ninth Razorback to be named SEC Freshman of the Year since 2000. She was also named USTFCCCA South Central Athlete of the Year and is the school-record holder in the 6K.

Payton Chadwick, Track and Field: Won an NCAA title in the 60-meter hurdles after running a personal-best 7.93 seconds in the finals. She recorded a personal best of 7.34 seconds in the 60 meters at the Texas Tech Open on Feb. 2 as well.

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