Razorbacks savor moment that has been few and far between

By: Matt Jones
Published: Saturday, June 23, 2018
Arkansas second baseman Carson Shaddy walks into the dugout during a College World Series game against Florida on Friday, June 22, 2018, in Omaha, Neb.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas second baseman Carson Shaddy walks into the dugout during a College World Series game against Florida on Friday, June 22, 2018, in Omaha, Neb.

OMAHA, Neb. — For the first time in a generation, a major Arkansas sport is going to play for a national championship.

Not since April 1995 have the Razorbacks been featured so prominently on the national stage in one of the NCAA’s three biggest sports – football, basketball and baseball. And while the College World Series doesn’t command the viewership of the College Football Playoff or March Madness, the importance of the 2018 finals is not diminished in the Natural State.

These moments only come along so often. They must be enjoyed and are always remembered fondly.

Arkansas’ is a fan base with a penchant for tough luck and a hankering for a championship. It hasn’t had one in a major team sport since Nolan Richardson led his basketball team on a memorable ride in 1994 that culminated with a win over Duke. The Razorbacks missed its chance to repeat when it lost to UCLA in the championship game the following year.

In the 23 years since, Arkansas hasn’t had a lot of watershed moments, at least not nationally. The football team came close to playing for national championships in 1998, 2006 and 2011, but failed to win its biggest games in November and December of those years.

Prior to Friday night, the baseball team, which will face either Mississippi State or Oregon State in the best-of-three final round beginning Monday, had its own share of late-season disappointments. Arkansas lost in the national semifinals in 2009 to LSU and in 2012 to South Carolina.

For longtime fans and observers, those failures made the Razorbacks’ 5-2 win over No. 1 Florida all the more satisfying. Arkansas not only won a major game, but controlled the defending national champion from start to finish in college baseball's equivalent to the Final Four.

“One of the reasons I came to this place was that I want to do this (win a championship) right here. I want to be a part of this,” said second-year pitching coach Wes Johnson, who grew up near Little Rock and attended Sylvan Hills High School, and left Mississippi State after an SEC championship season in 2016 to coach at Arkansas, which was coming off a losing season. “I grew up a Razorback fan and grew up in this state, and love the Hogs. It means a lot to me right now; I’m really, really excited.”

Unlike Arkansas’ football and basketball programs, the Razorbacks’ baseball team has never won a national championship. The closest it came was 39 years ago when Arkansas, coached by Norm DeBriyn, lost 2-1 to Cal State Fullerton in the title game.

The Razorbacks are looking to become only the fifth program since World War II to win a national championship in all three sports. The others: Florida, UCLA, Michigan and Ohio State.

“Being able to be in the same conversation with the 1964 football national championship or the ’94 basketball national championship - and, obviously, all the track national championships - I’m lost for words,” said Carson Shaddy, a second baseman from Fayetteville. “This year is the best thing that has ever happened to me.

“It was our goal not only to make it to Omaha, but to win it. Being able to get one step closer, to the final step, is just incredible. I can’t believe we’re in this and going to play for a national championship.”

Shaddy is a second-generation Razorback baseball player. His father, Chris, came to Arkansas shortly after the Razorbacks' runner-up finish in 1979.

“He hasn’t talked to me about” what it would mean to win a championship, Shaddy said, “but I know exactly what it would mean. I know all the guys who have put blood, sweat and tears into this program are just ecstatic right now sitting at home and watching.

“I’m so happy for them that they’re getting to share this with us.”

Dave Van Horn, the 16th-year head coach, deflected a request to reflect on what the national championship appearance meant to him personally, but prior to the trip to Omaha, Van Horn shared what a national championship would mean to the program.

“It wouldn’t be about me; it would be about all the players who have come through here,” said Van Horn, who played at Arkansas in 1982 after transferring from a junior college. “It would be for Coach DeBriyn, who coached here when they first joined the Southwest Conference and they had to play at the fairgrounds over here. The powers of the league would come up here and make fun of them and laugh at them because of their facilities, and (DeBriyn) endured all that.”

No one is laughing at Arkansas baseball anymore. Van Horn has grown the Razorbacks’ recognition, both inside and outside the state. Arkansas annually ranks among the top three nationally in attendance, recently had its ballpark ranked the best in college baseball and is a popular draw on national TV.

The Razorbacks are generally considered a great program, but two more wins might elevate them to the status of college baseball's elite.

“This is what I came back for, Shaddy came back for and (Luke) Bonfield came back for,” said Blaine Knight, a Bryant native who will start the first game of the national championship series Monday.

“It’s what I came to the university for. To see it come to life and a little bit closer now, it’s pretty fun.”

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