Top 2018 Arkansas Sports Stories:

Good Hogs’ baseball tops bad football season

By: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Published: Tuesday, January 1, 2019
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn follows batting practice at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., Friday, June 15, 2018. Arkansas plays Texas on Sunday in the NCAA College World Series baseball tournament. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn follows batting practice at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., Friday, June 15, 2018. Arkansas plays Texas on Sunday in the NCAA College World Series baseball tournament. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

The Arkansas Razorbacks entered the 2018 baseball season armed with top-five rankings in numerous polls. They exited it as the runner-up at the College World Series, one out away from claiming their first championship in the sport.

In between, the Razorbacks went on a record home run binge and took a wild ride that culminated in a 4-0 start at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., as their fans lived up to their OmaHogs cry.

For their run to a share of the SEC West title and the program's second runner-up finish at the College World Series, the Arkansas baseball team was selected by the staff of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as the state's sports story of the year.

"We had a tremendous season," 16th-year head Coach Dave Van Horn said. "We had a lot of high expectations, and I thought they did a tremendous job showing up day in and day out and giving us a chance to get to Omaha and to kind of live up to all the expectation and the hype."

Along the way, the University of Arkansas ousted defending CWS champion and preseason No. 1 Florida from both the SEC Tournament and the College World Series; went 3-0 against Texas; and tied Ole Miss for the SEC West crown. The Hogs went 15-4 in a late stretch over standout competition, culminating with a 4-1 victory behind ace Blaine Knight in Game One of the rain-delayed CWS finals against Oregon State.

"It's the stuff you dream of," outfielder Heston Kjerstad, the SEC Freshman of the Year, said. "We went on a remarkable chase that all of us can tell stories about for the rest of our lives. Those are accomplishments and accolades that you'll always enjoy and smile about no matter how old you get."

Freshman third baseman Casey Martin, who established himself as one of the fastest players and top hitters in the game, said the camaraderie was just as special as the achievements.

"Overall, I thought we did pretty dang good," Martin said. "We had a lot of older guys that helped us, younger guys that got to contribute as freshmen. Even though we didn't win it, I'm still extremely proud of how we played to get there."

Knight was the pitching standout with a 14-0 record. He broke the school record for victories, as lefty reliever Matt Cronin did with 14 saves. Kacey Murphy, Isaiah Campbell, Jake Reindl, Barrett Loseke and Kole Ramage pitched in key moments as the Razorbacks tied their school record with 619 strikeouts.

The Hogs hitters were no slouches, pounding a school-record 98 home runs en route to 482 runs, tied for sixth best at Arkansas.

Key returning veterans such as Carson Shaddy, Grant Koch, Luke Bonfield, Eric Cole, Jared Gates, Jax Biggers and Dominic Fletcher combined with the standout freshmen Martin and Kjerstad to turn the Razorbacks into a dynamic force that posted a 48-21 record.

Arkansas nailed down a spot in Omaha with a 14-4 victory over South Carolina at Baum Stadium to cap a high-scoring super regional before a crowd of 11,217.

The next one was good, too, an 11-5 trouncing of the Texas Longhorns in the Hogs' CWS opener.

"The one that sticks out to me was the first game of the World Series, when you looked out in the crowd and it was like all Razorback fans, like 30,000 fans," Kjerstad said. "That was one of the most crazy experiences I've ever had. And all of them were rooting for you. That was crazy how a whole state is behind you like that."

After tying for the SEC West crown with an 18-12 record, Arkansas whipped South Carolina (13-8) and Florida (8-2) in the SEC Tournament to start their strong postseason run.

The Razorbacks led Oregon State 3-2 in the ninth inning of the second game of the CWS finals before a difficult foul pop fell uncaught, leading to a 5-3 victory for the Beavers, who closed out the series the next day.

Van Horn said he was still working at making peace with the final series.

"That's probably going to take a long time for me," Van Horn said. "Really, I'm at peace with how good our team was and the fact that we got to Omaha and we had the opportunity to play for a national championship. I think that I'll be at peace with that one day when we get another opportunity."

-- Tom Murphy

No. 2

Rocky start for Morris

The Arkansas Razorbacks' debut season under Chad Morris got turned sideways with a Rocky Mountain low in Week 2.

The Hogs faced a tough uphill slog after blowing an 18-point, second-half lead in what became a 34-27 loss to Colorado State. They went 1-9 the rest of the way to record the first 10-loss campaign in school history.

The year had scattered highlights, such as a 23-0 shutout of Tulsa, the team's first since 2014, but many of the advancements were cloaked in losses.

The Razorbacks had respectable showings against several SEC West members, including a 65-31 loss to No. 1 Alabama, as well as 24-17 losses to both LSU and Texas A&M.

But there were also performances where the wheels came off, notably the 52-6 and 38-0 losses at Mississippi State and Missouri to end the season. Add in the stand-alone disaster of a 44-17 home loss to North Texas on Sept. 15 and the Razorbacks had one forgettable season.

The loss total exceeded the 3-9 season of 2013 for the most in school history. The two victories tied the teams in 1943 (2-7), 1950 (2-8) and 1952 (2-8) for the fewest by the Razorbacks since 1906, with the exception of the 1-6-2 season of 1932.

Morris and his staff -- which arrived with catchphrases such as "Hammer Down" and "Full Tilt Boogie" -- have not wallowed in misery. They attracted a top-20 recruiting class during the early signing period from Dec. 19-21, and likely additions Hudson Henry, Adonis Otey and others will bolster the class in February.

Morris turned the page on the season with encouraging words at his post-season news conference.

"There is growth happening inside this program," he said. "We spent the first year establishing the culture of this program. How we do things, what we stand for, and things we're not going to deviate on."

-- Tom Murphy

No. 3

In-state decision

When Arkansas released its 2019 baseball schedule Aug. 29, there were a couple of surprise additions.

Arkansas announced it will play the University of Arkansas at Little Rock on April 2 and University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff on April 16 at Baum Stadium, ending a long-standing policy of not scheduling in-state schools.

Arkansas hasn't played an in-state college previously in baseball, and the last time the Razorbacks scheduled in-state opponents in football and basketball were the University of Arkansas-Monticello in 1944 and Arkansas Tech University during the 1950-51 season.

"As the flagship institution within our state, this is an opportunity for us to enhance interest in our nonconference schedules while supporting other schools within the University of Arkansas system," Arkansas Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek said. "We have initiated with baseball this year and are exploring opportunities for future years in other sports."

Dave Van Horn, going into his 17th season as Arkansas' baseball coach, was a proponent of scheduling in-state teams.

"It's going to be great for the game of baseball in our state," Van Horn said. "Baseball has improved so much at the high school level in the state of Arkansas. I continue to see it every year when we're recruiting.

"I think this will help grow baseball. The fan interest is there, and it'll be big."

Arkansas State University and other in-state teams shouldn't get their hopes up about playing the Razorbacks.

"While I know that this announcement will generate additional speculation, there are no plans to expand in-state scheduling beyond those schools affiliated with the University of Arkansas System," Yurachek said.

-- Bob Holt

No. 4

Class 5A thriller

Pulaski Academy's four-year run as Class 5A state champions in football ended thanks to its west Little Rock rival.

Senior quarterback Justice Hill accounted for 330 yards and 4 touchdowns, including 2 passing and 2 rushing, to lead the Warriors to a 52-38 victory over the Bruins on Dec. 2 at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.

The game was originally scheduled for Nov. 30, but the Arkansas Activities Association moved the Class 5A title game to Dec. 2 and six semifinal games across the state to Dec. 1 because of the possibility of a severe weather threat.

Pulaski Academy had won four consecutive state titles from 2014-2017 and entered the Class 5A final with a 60-game winning streak against in-state opponents that began in 2014. But the Warriors avenged their only loss in 2018, a 56-14 setback at Pulaski Academy on Sept. 28, to earn their first state championship.

Little Rock Christian (13-1), which trailed 31-21 at halftime, outscored Pulaski Academy 31-7 in the second half and forced three turnovers in the final two quarters.

"We didn't really look at the scoreboard. We just keep competing," Warriors Coach Eric Cohu said. "We have some good players. We knew we had a good plan. We just tried to stay the course."

Hill, the game's MVP, completed 12 of 25 passes for 218 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. On the ground, he had 112 yards and 2 touchdowns on 15 carries.

Junior wide receiver Chris Hightower caught 4 passes for 92 yards and 1 touchdown. Senior wide receiver MJ Loggins added 2 receptions for 56 yards and 1 touchdown and had 8 tackles on defense.

For Pulaski Academy (12-2), junior quarterback Braden Bratcher finished 30-of-50 passing for 417 yards with 5 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. He also rushed for 114 yards on 25 carries.

-- Jeremy Muck

No. 5

Williams shines

For four years, Christyn Williams was a star for Central Arkansas Christian and a major pain for any opposing high school coach in Arkansas.

In her freshman debut in 2014, Williams scored 34 points and grabbed 16 rebounds against Pulaski Academy.

"I've never been so tired of any one player on another team in my life," Pulaski Academy Coach Rick Treadway said. "I was the one at their graduation standing up cheering and throwing pompoms in the air."

Over the course of her four-year career at CAC, Williams led the Lady Mustangs to a 117-24 record, including a 36-1 mark last season as CAC captured the Class 4A state championship.

Williams was a three-time Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Arkansas. She was the Gatorade National Player of the Year in 2018, and she also won player of the year honors for the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, USA Today and Naismith. She averaged 26.0 points per game.

At the McDonald's All-American Game, Williams scored 22 points and was named MVP after leading the West to an 82-79 victory.

"She's the most motivated kid I've ever seen," CAC Coach Steve Quattlebaum said. "She has a plan, and she's focused on that plan. She knows what she wants, and she's going to outwork everybody to get what she wants."

In her first 11 games with the University of Connecticut, Williams has logged team highs in minutes played and steals. She has started every game and is averaging 13.8 points and 3.8 rebounds a game.

In an 89-71 victory over then No. 1 Notre Dame in December, Williams scored a season-best 28 points.

"She made the game fun," Treadway said. "But I am glad she's scoring points for UConn now."

-- Tim Cooper

No. 6

Gafford returns home

Daniel Gafford could have been on an NBA team this season instead of playing for the University of Arkansas.

After a freshman season in which he showed off an impressive mixture of size, athleticism, speed and skills -- along with a 7-4 wingspan -- the 6-11 Gafford was projected as a first-round draft choice by virtually every website that covers the NBA.

Gafford instead decided to return to Arkansas for his sophomore season.

"It took a lot of thought," Gafford said in April at the Razorbacks' basketball banquet. "At one point in time, I was 100 percent ready to go to the draft.

"In my mind, I wanted to go. But in my heart, I wanted to stay."

Razorbacks Coach Mike Anderson said there was no doubt Gafford could have been a first-round pick after last season, but he knew he needed to work on his game.

"That's a testament to the kid and his family," Anderson said. "He wants to get better, and he understands he's got to improve. He came to that realization, and I'm happy he did."

Gafford said at SEC media days in October that he never had second thoughts about putting off the NBA for a year.

"I made a decision, it was final, and I'm here now," he said. "I'm 100 percent behind it. I'm all in at Arkansas."

Gafford could have entered his name into the draft, attended the NBA scouting combine, gotten feedback from professional scouts and team executives, and still retained his college eligibility by not signing with an agent. He didn't even take that step.

"I wasn't worried about testing the waters," Gafford said. "I just wanted to come back so I could get my mind ready to focus on maturing and being a leader of the team and worrying about this season."

-- Bob Holt

No. 7

Unbeatable Knight

Blaine Knight had an unbeatable season in 2018.

The University of Arkansas right-hander went 14-0 and led his home-state Razorbacks to the College World Series.

The former Bryant High School star elected to return for his junior season even though he had a high probability of being an early selection in the 2017 Major League Baseball Draft.

"I've accomplished a lot of goals in my short time here, but I have plenty more," Knight wrote in the summer of 2017. "Everyone has told me a trip to Omaha is an experience like no other. I plan on achieving that goal next season and bringing the rest of the state with me."

Knight proved prophetic.

Just before helping the Hogs qualify for Omaha, Knight was selected by the Baltimore Orioles as the No. 87 pick in the third round of the draft.

He made 19 starts in 2018 and won a school-record 14 games. The Razorbacks went 16-3 in his starts, including victories in his last nine games. He earned the win in eight of those games, beating a cast of heavyweights down the stretch: Texas A&M, Georgia, South Carolina, Oral Roberts, South Carolina again, Texas and Oregon State.

The lanky 6-3, 165-pounder recorded 102 strikeouts and 25 walks in 112⅓ innings. Knight had a 2.80 ERA to rank fifth in the SEC. His innings pitched was tied for third, his .230 opponent batting average ninth and his strikeouts 10th. He struck out 35 batters looking to rank third in the league.

The list of pitchers he defeated is rife with high MLB Draft picks.

On consecutive weekends, he and the Razorbacks won 6-3 at No. 2 Florida over Brady Singer, 6-4 at No. 4 Ole Miss over Ryan Rolison and 2-1 over Auburn and Casey Mize.

Mize was the No. 1 pick in the draft, while Singer was taken at No. 18 and Rolison at No. 22.

Knight also beat No. 33 pick Jackson Kowar of Florida at the SEC Tournament, No. 76 pick Mitchell Kilkenney of Texas A&M late in the season and Oregon State ace Luke Heimlich (16-3), the national college pitcher of the year, in Game One of the CWS finals.

And nobody beat him.

-- Tom Murphy

No. 8 (tie)

UALR turns to Walker

Without a new job soon to start, Darrell Walker gripped a podium and delivered an unsurprising statement to a room of media members and University of Arkansas at Little Rock fans and donors before the 2018 season began.

"It's going to be a process," the coach UALR hired to cleanse its basketball program said in March. "It's not going to happen overnight."

Walker's hiring nine months ago meant the Trojans could both bring in a mind with a wealth of experience and someone who desired to live and work in Little Rock, Walker's home since 1983.

The Trojans were coming off a 7-25 season under Wes Flanigan in 2017-18 -- the most single-season losses in school history -- before turning to Walker.

The Trojans are 5-8 through Walker's first 13 games, but they have had encouraging performances to end 2018.

A 99-89 loss at Memphis on Dec. 19 and a 102-94 overtime loss at Georgetown on Dec. 22 showed the Trojans -- whose inexperience has revealed itself several times this season -- can hang with bigger programs.

At Georgetown, the Trojans started four freshmen and redshirt junior Rayjon Tucker, the team's leading scorer at 20.8 points per game.

UALR will enter Sun Belt Conference play for the first time under Walker on Thursday at Louisiana-Monroe. The Trojans were predicted to finish last among 12 Sun Belt teams in league play.

Multiple returning players have indicated it took time for them to warm up to Walker.

"Early on, it wasn't as easy," sophomore point guard Jaizec Lottie said. "I feel like a lot of players didn't trust him as much. Now ... everyone's buying in. It's really cool."

-- Christian Boutwell

No. 8 (tie)

Senior duo leads Hogs

Arkansas overcame a 1-3 SEC start to make its second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance and third in a four-year span.

"I can truly say we gave it our all the whole season," senior guard Daryl Macon said after Butler beat Arkansas 79-62 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. "It was a bumpy start to conference play, and we turned it around."

Macon and senior guard Jaylen Barford earned All-SEC honors in leading the Razorbacks to a 23-12 record, including 10-8 in SEC play.

The Razorbacks' best performance was in their 80-72 victory over No. 23 Florida in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, which broke an eight-game losing streak to the Gators. Arkansas' last victory over Florida had been five years earlier, 80-69, on Feb. 5, 2013.

"It was fun out there," said Barford, who led the Razorbacks with 27 points and 10 rebounds. "We were into it defensively and offensively.

"I know the fans were excited and we were excited and Coach [Mike Anderson] was juiced. We wanted to win that game bad."

Macon and Barford, both junior college transfers, became the sixth and seventh Arkansas players to score more than 1,000 points in two seasons. They were the first teammates to join the 1,000-point club in the same game when the Razorbacks beat Auburn 91-82 on senior night in Walton Arena.

Barford finished with 1,087 points to rank 33rd on the Razorbacks' career scoring list. Macon is 34th with 1,070 points.

The addition of Barford and Macon helped the Razorbacks to a combined 49-22 record -- including 22-14 in the SEC -- in their two seasons.

"I think they impacted this program in a mighty way," Anderson said. "They were winners."

-- Bob Holt

No. 10

Oaklawn shifts schedule

Oaklawn Park will see significant changes for the 2019 season, it was announced last year.

For the first time in the 115-year history of the Hot Springs facility, racing will take place after Arkansas Derby Day. The 57-day meet will run from late January to early May. The track also has added two signature stakes races for the final weekend.

"We couldn't be more excited about our new stakes and racing schedule," Oaklawn President Louis Cella said. "We are now able to present some of our best racing during the best time of the year weather-wise in Arkansas."

The Racing Festival of the South remains scheduled for the second week of April but has been shortened to three days. The $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) will be run on Saturday, April 13, along with the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) and the $400,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3). The $700,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) for older fillies and mares moves to Sunday, April 14.

The Rebel Stakes (G2), which has offered a $900,000 purse since 2016, will have a guaranteed purse of $1 million in 2019. It will be one of four races at Oaklawn that carries Kentucky Derby qualifying points.

Oaklawn's final day -- Saturday, May 4 -- will feature two races for 3-year-olds. The $200,000 Arkansas Breeders' Championship will be run at 1 1/16th miles, and the $250,00 Oaklawn Invitational will be a run at 1⅛ miles.

Oaklawn lost one of its most significant figures with the death of Terry Wallace in December.

Wallace began calling races at the track in 1975 and called a record 20,191 consecutive races before ending the streak on Jan. 28, 2011. He stepped down as announcer after the 2011 season but remained a popular ambassador for the track until his retirement in 2017.

-- Tim Cooper

Sports on 01/01/2019

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