Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
What-ifs continue: UA teams were on pace for special season
Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad (18) is congratulated by hitting coach Nate Thompson after hitting a home run during a game against Texas on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020, during the Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
FAYETTEVILLE -- A 20-home run season, a .400 batting average and a perch near the top of the University of Arkansas' record book across the offensive spectrum were within reach of Heston Kjerstad in 2020.
All of that was ripped away March 17 when the SEC called off the rest of the season in all spring sports due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
Kjerstad admitted in a teleconference last week that he will always wonder what could have been if the season hadn't been canceled with the Razorbacks sitting at 11-5 and ranked No. 14 in the country.
"You know there will always be a question mark next to the 2020 season on what I could have done or what I thought I was capable of," Kjerstad said. "It will always be just a big question mark for me and everybody else and it will probably always be something that I'll think about."
Kjerstad was hitting .448 with 6 home runs and 20 RBI through 16 games at the time of the cancellation roughly a quarter of the way through the season. Extrapolated out, the 6-3 junior from Amarillo, Texas, would have been in range of school records like Zack Cox's .429 batting average (2010), Ryan Lundquist's 24 home runs (1997) and Jeff King's 82 RBI (1985).
Kjerstad's career numbers: A .343 batting average, 37 home runs, 129 RBI and 34 doubles. The Arkansas career records in those categories: Matt Erickson's .377 average, Danny Hamblin's 57 home runs, Lundquist's 233 RBI and Lundquist's 68 doubles.
"I think he's probably the best left-handed hitter in the country," Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said, "if you combo up being able to use the whole field and you throw in the power and power to all parts of the field. The development I've seen, I don't know how there could be a better left-handed hitter in the country right now."
Kjerstad is very likely to be a first-round pick in Major League Baseball's Amateur Draft, whenever it is held this summer, meaning his Arkansas career is probably over. He is rated as the No. 15 prospect for the draft by Baseball America.
Razorbacks shortstop Casey Martin of Lonoke and catcher Casey Opitz of Centennial, Colo., are also juniors rated as high draft picks, and their careers at Arkansas might have come to an end.
The Razorbacks, coming off back-to-back appearances in the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., for the first time, will never know if it could have been three in a row this June.
"Heston hit the nail on the head there: 2020 is going to be a huge 'what if' with a question mark with it," Opitz said, speaking on the same teleconference with Kjerstad on Tuesday.
"I think we were right there in line to compete with anybody and to play in Omaha again. That's the toughest part for us is we knew we were able to get there and we could have done something special."
The Razorbacks women's softball team had a winning formula cooking as well. Coach Courtney Deifel's fifth edition was 19-6 and ranked 20th in the country at the time of the stoppage.
Arkansas had a team batting average of .317 that was tied for sixth in the SEC with Florida, and its 1.93 earned run average was fifth in the rugged SEC.
The softball team was coming off back-to-back seasons with a .500 conference record or better for the first time since 1999-2000. The Razorbacks beat No. 9 Alabama 1-0 on the road to open conference play on March 6 for their first win over a ranked opponent this season and their first win in Tuscaloosa since 2000.
"We've been saying since the fall that this team was so incredibly special," senior outfielder Sydney Parr of North Little Rock said. "You know out of my four years, this team this year was so united.
"We were really excited to see where we would end up throughout the season and especially at the end. Just offensively, defensively, the pitching staff, just all of the tools that we had and ... now there's that question mark.
"What could the 2020 season have been? We don't know. There's a question mark to it because it abruptly ended. But I do know that we would have gone a very long way and we would have been very successful as a program. I strongly feel that way."
Parr's teammate Braxton Burnside, a shortstop from Paragould and a transfer from Missouri, agreed.
"We were going in a very, very positive direction," Burnside said. "This team was, I would say ... we found our identity probably in the second tournament that we held at home in February. We were just a group of fighters.
"I think that was seen in that 1-0 win that we had at Bama. That's very tough to do, go to Bama and win at all, but you know especially the first game of the conference season."
In that game, Arkansas outhit the Crimson Tide 8-5.
First baseman Danielle Gibson went 4 for 4 and drove in Hannah McEwen with the game's only run in the top of the seventh.
Autumn Storms (10-2) made it stand up, allowing just five singles in the shutout and inducing two double plays, including one to end the game.
"This was a very special group and we had a lot of talent on this team," Burnside said. "And to see it cut short is just very sad.
"Like Syd said, there will always be that question mark. Just knowing that we were fighting in a positive direction and this next year will be nothing but feeding off of that. We're just going to continue to rise and get better and better and show the kind of fight and talent we had while representing the state of Arkansas."
Opitz noted the Razorbacks' weird start -- a seven-game winning streak to open the season, followed by five consecutive losses started by setbacks to Oklahoma, Texas and Baylor at the Shriner's College Classic in Houston, then four straight victories before the cancellation.
"We were going really good at the beginning of the season and then we hit a bump in Houston," Opitz said. "That's what teams do early on in the season. They're not their best, they lose games, they have to figure out why they're losing them and make adjustments.
"We kind of felt like we were right in line, we were taking the right steps, everything was working toward the end of the season, so it was tough when it got cut short."
Kjerstad said not knowing if the 2020 team could have played in the Hogs' third consecutive CWS will always leave him wondering.
"Also a big question mark would be were we going to make a repeat back to Omaha, all the guys, that's another big question mark.
"I feel like that's the feeling for everyone one in college baseball, that 2020 will always have an asterisk next to it. We will never know and it'll just be something that we think about and wonder."
Sports on 04/05/2020
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