State of the Hogs: Old photo foretold future for Opitz

By: Clay Henry
Published: Monday, March 23, 2020
Arkansas catcher Casey Opitz (12) looks to throw after picking up a loose ball during an NCAA baseball game against Oklahoma on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020 in Houston. (AP Photo/Matt Patterson)
Arkansas catcher Casey Opitz (12) looks to throw after picking up a loose ball during an NCAA baseball game against Oklahoma on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020 in Houston. (AP Photo/Matt Patterson)

Casey Opitz did not grow up an Arkansas baseball fan. His memories of college baseball were tied to road trips to Lincoln, Neb., to watch older brother Jake star for Nebraska’s baseball team.

Jake was an All-Big 12 infielder for the Cornhuskers as a senior in 2008. Casey has great stories about the family loading into a Suburban in the Denver area for long trips to Lincoln and other Big 12 cities to watch Jake.

Dave Van Horn had already left Nebraska and had taken the Arkansas team to the College World Series, but the Opitz family heard the great stories of Van Horn’s time with the Cornhuskers. Jake's head coach at Nebraska, Mike Anderson, was a Van Horn assistant who was promoted after Van Horn left for Arkansas.

So it was an easy recruiting sell when Van Horn began to recruit Casey, but there were no preconceived notions about becoming a Razorback. It was not in his dreams.

That needs to be the preface as we fast forward to a post by Opitz on Twitter last week as the college baseball season came to a screeching halt because of the coronavirus pandemic. Opitz sent out the message with one of the best pictures ever of a Razorback athlete.

It went viral among Razorback fans, in an emotional state already with the end of what promised to be another successful season by a highly regarded Van Horn baseball team.

“It’s been going nuts,” Opitz said Saturday in a phone interview from his home in Centennial, Colo.

“It’s just been crazy how people have reacted (to the post and picture). I have gotten so much support in my time at Arkansas, but this has been unreal.

“Even from the point that I signed with Arkansas, the support has been unreal. I wasn’t a big-time recruit, but it was obvious that people were excited about me coming to school. It’s like that for so many of us.

“We really had no idea about the fan support for the Razorbacks. I really didn’t know that much about Razorback sports when I signed. It is just incredible and (the reaction to the post) is no different.”

Opitz said the picture of him wearing the hog hat is just a bizarre coincidence that now puts everything in perspective.

“It shows that I had a destiny,” he said. “I was always going to be a Razorback. That picture was taken when I was 3 or 4.

“The story behind it was that I was at a friend’s house playing in the basement. His father was just a big college football fan. He had all kinds of stuff from different schools. He had this hog hat and I put it on and someone took a picture.

“To be honest, we had all forgotten the picture. It was after my freshman year (at Arkansas) when it resurfaced. At that point, I just thought me being at Arkansas was meant to be.”

Perhaps Opitz didn’t even know it existed. That was a long time ago.

What is obvious is that he was mean to be a switch-hitting catcher. Older brothers Jake and Shane were going to be baseball players, too. Those three boys all were fantastic players in high school. Their parents, Jeff and Melanie, must have seen a lot of baseball as they raised those three boys and a daughter, Jessica.

“My dad was a college baseball player (at Metro State in Denver) and my brothers are both middle infielders,” Casey said. “Our whole lives revolved around playing baseball. Our summer vacations were to baseball tournaments. We never had any other trips. That’s all we did.”

Casey's older brothers are still involved with baseball after playing minor league baseball. So there is no problem with finding a place to work out now that Casey is home in Colorado.

“There is a hitting bay in the basement,” Casey said. “I work out with my brothers every day. I don’t really know what’s next, so I’m just focused on my daily workouts. We haven’t been outside yet, but I’m sure there will be some nice days for that coming up.”

It’s just been a little over one week since he packed his apartment in Fayetteville and left for Colorado. It could be that he’s taken as high as the second round in the MLB Draft this summer and signs. Like Heston Kjerstad and Casey Martin, the money for a highly regarded junior is too much to turn down.

Opitz didn’t say that he’d for sure sign, but he didn’t deny that’s a real possibility. No one wants to eliminate their bargaining power. Van Horn counts Opitz, Martin and Kjerstad as gone. But, who knows? There may not be a draft this year. That’s been talked about.

“We just don’t know any of that right now,” Opitz said. “I have not talked to any scouts. No one knows what is going to happen.”

It could be that he gets to return to college and repeat his junior year, retaining leverage power for another year.

But, more than likely, his 16 games this season were the last Razorback fans have seen of Opitz. He’s been a wonderful, clutch player, delivering big hits and throwing out base runners at an amazing clip. He delighted MLB scouts last summer during a tour with USA Baseball.

The 2020 Hogs were just hitting their stride when the season was halted as they prepared to load a bus for Starkville, Miss., and the start of the SEC season. The plan was to play Mississippi State in an empty stadium, but less than 24 hours after that plan had been put in place, the SEC suspended the season, then canceled it the next week. The NCAA had already canceled postseason play.

Casey Opitz Stats

Batting

2018 (19 games): .222, 3 walks, 5 RBI

2019 (58 games): .243, 38 walks, 3 HRs, 33 RBI

2020 (16 games): .302, 6 walks, 1 HR, 11 RBI

Runners Caught Stealing

2018: 7-7

2019: 22-24

2020: 6-10

There was a team meeting during which Van Horn told them to head home if they could. It was an incredible meeting. The coach was so emotional he grabbed a chair to sit in the middle of the locker room to talk to his players.

“Coach Van Horn was kinda speechless,” Opitz said. “There is really nothing you can say. There is nothing you can do.”

Well, Opitz knows what to do. He can work. That’s all he’s ever done. That’s what he did every day this past year to prepare for what he hoped was a run to another College World Series.

“We really have a good team,” he said. “We all knew that. We were just starting to gel. We took a hit in those (three losses) in Houston. We have some freshmen who were coming on. We all liked each other. This was going to be a good year. We knew that.”

The Hogs will put 11-5 in the record books. There was a 7-0 start, then a five-game losing streak. But they won their last four, including 10-9 over Grand Canyon State that proved to be the season finale.

Opitz was in the middle of a four-run rally in the sixth inning that provided the final margin. His last at-bat came in the eighth, a scorched line drive caught by the pitcher in self defense.

There was a question about perhaps playing his last game, maybe something that wasn’t predictable. Opitz had a matter-of-fact answer, something he actually also said during a January interview to preview the season.

“I go back to something Grant Koch told me as we went to the bullpen before game three of the Super Regional against South Carolina my freshman year,” Opitz said.

They were on the way to warm up starting pitcher Isaiah Campbell for the Game 3 victory that sent the Razorbacks to Omaha. Baum Stadium was already packed with one of the biggest crowds in its history.

“We were looking at the Hog Pen full,” Opitz said. “I was a freshman and Grant was about to play his last game in his home stadium. He grew up in Fayetteville and knew all the history of the team. I didn’t.

“But he told me, 'Look at these fans. Don’t ever take them for granted. Go out there every game and play as hard as you can for them, because you never know when it’s going to be your last game in front of them.'"

Opitz said he gave teammates the same advice that Koch gave him two years ago. There was confirmation of that from Cason Tollett's father. Johnny Tollett said Opitz told his son almost the same thing: don't take anything for granted before the last game of the season.

Johnny Tollett said players joked that the injured Tollett, a freshman catcher from Little Rock Christian, needed to get well so Opitz could get a day off. He had been rehabbing an arm injury and was probably one week away from being cleared to play again.

"Cason said something to Casey to the effect of, 'Sorry man. I’ll be cleared soon,'" Johnny Tollett said. "Opitz looked at my son and said, 'Don’t ever take for granted a day you get to play baseball.'

"My son got home that Friday night. The first thing he told me was about his brief conversation with Casey. That happened before anyone could have imagined the events of the next few days. Casey’s message has stuck with him.

"Casey was a true leader. He wore 'Razorbacks' across his chest but he was just as much Arkansas as the rest of the in-state kids. My son was just about to be cleared. I doubt he would have played much this year but he would have gotten his chance to give Casey a much deserved break. As a parent, I am not as frustrated about the loss of my son’s season as I am the loss of four more months of my son being around and learning from Casey."

No captain has done any more in such a short time to put his imprint on a young squad. Opitz was a worker, first to arrive and last to leave.

To no one's surprise, Opitz just got back to work when he returned to Colorado. It's not a surprise that he continued to pass on Koch's message as the virus shut down everything in every direction.

It was great advice from one great Razorback captain, Koch, to another player everyone predicted would be a captain.

“Grant taught me to appreciate every moment, cherish every at bat, every pitch caught. I learned to treat every game as if it was my last," he said.

“So that leaves me with no regrets. I just did that all of last year and I did it for every game this year, play like it was my last game.”

That’s what Opitz told young players to do. Really, that’s how you should play the game anyway. Opitz learned to take each day as a celebration of playing the game he loved, in a uniform he grew to love.

It was obvious, too. He played catcher like the band leader, barking out instruction to the pitcher, giving a hand signal of approval for every pitch, even those called balls by the umpire. You hit the mitt, Opitz applauded it. There would be a fist pump, a thumbs up or a shout back to the pitcher.

There are probably cheers for his brothers in the basement as they swing at balls off a tee. Opitz makes sure everyone has fun around him. He was a unanimous pick for team captain this season.

“That’s just the way I am,” he said of the instant feedback for his teammates. “I just do that. It’s my way of keeping everyone involved.

“As far as what we are doing in the basement, right now it’s just hitting off the tee. We’ll probably go to something else when the weather allows it, just keep working, do whatever it takes.”

What about the draft? He’s highly coveted, one of the best catchers ever for the Razorbacks. His chances to play in the major leagues may be equal to James McCann, the former UA catcher now with the White Sox. McCann has watched Opitz on TV and sees a wonderful pro prospect. Everyone does.

“I really am not thinking about the future,” Opitz said. “I don’t know what it holds for me or any of the other guys. Obviously, Heston, Martin and me, it might be (high draft picks). But that’s still a long ways off. I just need to keep working and taking care of each day right now.

“There are some crazy things out there like the possibility of getting this year back. Who knows what the future is right now? I don’t. You don’t really worry about that. Take care of the things you can control and work, that’s what I’m doing.

“It’s all kinda unbelievable right now. No one knows anything and it can all change so fast.

“We left Fayetteville hoping we’d come back and play this year. It was just a shock and there was no way to understand what just happened.

“The only word I can think of to describe it all is 'surreal.' I hope nothing like this ever happens again.”

As far as what the scouts might think of him, Opitz said, “I haven’t dug into that yet. I’m not thinking about the next step. I’m just heartbroken. Everyone is looking for answers, but there are no answers now.”

To drive away from his teammates was toughest. Opitz was the leader on the team. He was the guy to encourage everyone. How was he going to do that from Colorado?

“My roommates are my brothers, Jacob Nesbit, Brady Disher. Then you have guys like Casey and Heston, the guys I came in with. We tried to tell each other it wasn’t goodbye; we are going to see each other in coming months. But it was tough to leave.”

What if they got to play together again next season with the eligibility clock staying the same?

“That would be crazy,” Opitz said. “That would be nuts.”

But that’s the way things have been of late, with something crazy or nuts just around the corner. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bizarre as a social media post with 4-year-old Casey Opitz wearing a hog hat in Centennial, Colo.

For now, he is pounding baseballs on a tee, not knowing when it’s his last swing and making it his best each and every time.

That’s what Casey Opitz does.

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