Win with the new: Roster turnover doesn’t hinder Hogs

By: Bob Holt
Published: Saturday, June 15, 2019
Arkansas designated hitter Matt Goodheart goes through practice Friday, June 14, 2019, at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.
Photo by Charlie Kaijo
Arkansas designated hitter Matt Goodheart goes through practice Friday, June 14, 2019, at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.

OMAHA, Neb. -- It won't be a totally new University of Arkansas baseball team that takes the field tonight against Florida State when the Razorbacks make back-to-back College World Series appearances for the first time.

But it's close.

Arkansas sophomores Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin are in their second season as starters, but at different positions. Kjerstad moved from left to right field and Martin moved from third base to shortstop.

Dominic Fletcher, a junior center fielder, is the only Razorback who will be playing the position tonight in TD Ameritrade Park that he did when Arkansas opened the 2018 College World Series by beating Texas 11-5.

Mississippi State and Texas Tech also are making their second consecutive College World Series appearances, but in contrast to the Razorbacks, the Bulldogs have seven position players who were starters last season and the Red Raiders have five.

"It's pretty amazing considering all the guys we lost," Fletcher said of the Razorbacks' College World Series return. "Having all the young guys and transfers and everyone step up like they have all year, it's really been a blessing to have those guys with us."

Arkansas' new lineup includes last season's backup catcher in sophomore Casey Opitz; graduate transfer senior Trevor Ezell at first base; last season's backup shortstop, junior Jack Kenley, at second base; redshirt freshman Jacob Nesbit at third base; freshman Christian Franklin in left field; and junior college transfer Matt Goodheart -- a sophomore -- as the designated hitter.

"It's an unbelievable story," Opitz said. "It says a lot about these other guys, stepping up to the moment and playing like they have, especially the freshman."

Arkansas finished runner-up to Oregon State last season and had a 48-21 record, including 18-12 in SEC play.

This season the Razorbacks are 46-18 and went 20-10 in the SEC -- the most conference victories they've had in Coach Dave Van Horn's 17 seasons.

Arkansas is a No. 5 national seed this season, as it was last season.

"It was a great season last year, we won a lot of games, got a lot of guys signed [to professional contracts]," Van Horn said. "But this is a different team.

"This team, I just tell them all the time, this is your team. It's not about last year.

"Once we started playing well, then we started getting compared to last year's team. People would tell me this team is better than last year's team, and I tell them, 'Just go out and write your own story.' And they've been doing it."

Kjerstad said the back-to-back College World Series with so much lineup changes make a statement about the program Van Horn has built.

"It just shows how good a program Arkansas is year after year," Kjerstad said. "No matter who leaves, there's always someone that's going to come in and fill the void because of the amount of talent we're able to get.

"You lose six guys on a World Series-contending team and you replace those guys and you come back to Omaha, and you're as good if not better than the year before. That's amazing. Just thankful to be a part of it."

Arkansas junior Isaiah Campbell has gone from being an inconsistent No. 3 starter last season to a rock-solid No. 1 ace with freshmen Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander rounding out the starting rotation.

"In the fall we didn't really know what this team would do at the end of the year," Campbell said. "We knew we had the talent, but we had a lot of younger guys and inexperienced guys.

"We've had a lot of guys step up this year, both in the field and on the pitching staff.

"Once we started playing a couple of weekends, I knew we had the chance to get to Omaha. We just had to keep playing and keep getting better as a team and getting the camaraderie up."

Junior Matt Cronin has been a dominant closer as he was last season, but the back end of the bullpen has become deeper with strong performances from Cody Scroggins and Jacob Kostyshock.

"The bullpen is much improved," Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco, whose team faced Arkansas in eight games this season, said after the Razorbacks won the super regional. "When we were here in March and seeing the SEC Tournament and this weekend, it has always gotten better.

"Cronin has always been great, but the other pieces are better now than there were in March. I think they have all the parts to have a lot of success in Omaha."

Vanderbilt Coach Tim Corbin, whose No. 2 Commodores are the highest-ranked team left in the College World Series after Michigan upset No. 1 UCLA, said he he's not surprised Arkansas is back in Omaha.

"Yeah, there's roster turnover, but when you're on the other side, you're not looking at Arkansas that way," Corbin. "I look at that roster much like I looked at them last year.

"Just, that's Arkansas, they're going to have a good team. Dave is always going to have good players.

"I just look at them as, 'Wow, this is Arkansas again. Dangerous, skilled, hit.' I mean, they're good at Arkansas."

Fletcher said the Razorbacks have been good in the clubhouse as well as on the field.

"I think our team chemistry is really good," Fletcher said. "We really don't have one captain or one leader. Everyone's kind of on the same level.

"It's not like freshmen are treated below everyone or stuff like that. It's just one team and we go out there and compete and have fun."

Van Horn said that going into the season he knew the Razorbacks would have to rely on a lot of previously untested players.

"Those are the guys we were going to live with all year," he said. "It's been a real special year because I think that they all just stepped up to the challenge. I watched guys get better all year."

Van Horn said when Arkansas won two of three games at Auburn -- which advanced to the College World Series -- in early April, including a 9-6 victory in 15 innings, he began looking at his team in a different light.

"I started realizing that we had a pretty good team, and they were really determined," Van Horn said. "Felt like they were tough, and I told them, 'I'm going to kind of get out of your way a little bit. We're just going to keep working. I'm going to let you guys run with this,' and they've done a tremendous job."

Sports on 06/15/2019

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