Timing not favorable to resume Hogs' baseball season

By: Matt Jones
Published: Friday, March 13, 2020
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn looks toward the field on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, during the Razorbacks' loss against Illinois State at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville. Visit nwaonline.com/200304Daily/ for today's photo gallery.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn looks toward the field on Tuesday, March 3, 2020, during the Razorbacks' loss against Illinois State at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville. Visit nwaonline.com/200304Daily/ for today's photo gallery.

— Arkansas' baseball season was suspended at least 16 additional days Friday, a day after it was initially put on hold for 18 days.

In reality, the Razorbacks’ promising 2020 season might be finished just a month after it began.

On Friday the SEC suspended games until at least April 15, but unlike its mandate a day earlier that put on hold games through March 30, the latest restriction from the conference also includes a practice ban for all sports. After 5 p.m. on Monday, Arkansas’ players and coaches cannot have in-person communication for nearly a month, and players will be barred from using team facilities to train.

During a news conference Friday afternoon, UA athletics director Hunter Yurachek didn’t completely write off the possibility of playing baseball games again this year, but said he was already looking forward to 2021.

“I will tell you I’ll miss watching our student-athletes compete tremendously,” Yurachek said. “That is something that is just icing on the cake for most of us in college athletics, and that will be something that will be a huge void in my life for the next several weeks, as it will be for most of us in this room.”

The changes have been frequent and sudden since Arkansas recorded a double play in the top of the ninth inning to defeat Grand Canyon 10-9 at around 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday - the Razorbacks’ fourth consecutive victory to improve their season record to 11-5.

Unknown then, it might have been the final time Arkansas fans saw junior stars Heston Kjerstad, Casey Martin and Casey Opitz in a Razorback uniform. All three are considered to be among the top 100 draft prospects in the upcoming MLB Draft, according to Baseball America.

Also draft eligible this year are designated hitter Matt Goodheart, outfielder Braydon Webb, infielders Jacob Nesbit and Cole Austin, and pitchers Kevin Kopps, Kole Ramage, Connor Noland, Marshall Denton, Caleb Bolden and Zebulon Vermillion.

All athletes in spring sports will be granted an extra year of eligibility, which means that baseball players will have the same amount of negotiating leverage in 2021 that they have this year.

But for some, the pro riches could be too much to pass up in exchange for another year of college ball. Players like Kjerstad and Martin are projected first-round picks, which often carry seven-figure signing bonuses, and other players could be in line to receive six-figure bonuses.

This year’s team was a group that had mostly been involved in one, if not both, of the Razorbacks’ consecutive trips to the College World Series in 2018 and 2019. Arkansas was a favorite to make it back to the World Series this year, and was picked to win the SEC Western Division in the preseason when coaches ranked the team No. 5 nationally.

The Razorbacks won’t have a chance for a third consecutive College World Series, though. The NCAA on Thursday canceled the event, scheduled for June 13-24 in Omaha, Neb., along with all other spring sport championships.

Although the NCAA postseason is shut down, the SEC could still play its regular-season schedule, including the conference tournament in Hoover, Ala. It was a notion that seemed possible early Friday when the SEC, Big 12, Pac-12 and ACC remained in a suspended state, but unlikely by Friday night when the Big 12 decided to cancel the rest of its baseball season.

In a statement, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn, who has not been made available for an interview since the play stoppage, said he was disappointed the Razorbacks were unable to start their conference season Friday night at Mississippi State, but understood the decision in light of the covid-19 concerns that have shut down sports worldwide.

“I feel bad for our players for all of the time and hard work they’ve put into this season and we’re disappointed we won’t get to play in front of our great fan base during this time,” Van Horn said. “We look forward to getting back together as a full team in the future.”

When the team will reunite is unclear. The SEC will re-evaluate the coronavirus and its impact on campuses by April 15, but there is no guarantee teams will be able to reassemble at that time.

“I hope April 15 is right on; that would be exciting news for everybody,” said Scott Stricklin, athletics director for top-ranked Florida during an interview with the Gainesville Sun. “I just think we have to prepare ourselves that it may be beyond that.”

And whenever the baseball team reunites it would need time to readjust before any games were played. That would not leave much time before the SEC regular season is scheduled to end with a series May 14-16.

Other spring sports, including softball, golf, tennis and outdoor track and field, are scheduled to conclude their regular seasons earlier than baseball, with some SEC postseason events scheduled for late April.

"I think it will be really tough for student-athletes to be away for a month and come back and really get geared back up,” Yurachek said. “What you have to really start to think about, from a student-athlete perspective, as an administrator: Is it best to try to piece together a half of a season with no national championship? Or is it best, as we talked about before, to give each student-athlete a year back, and let them come back and have a full, competitive, championship experience?"

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