Diamond Hogs’ season-long labor bears fruit

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Tuesday, June 1, 2021
Arkansas catcher Casey Opitz (12) celebrates with pitcher Kevin Kopps after they defeated Tennessee to win the NCAA college baseball championship game during the Southeastern Conference tournament Sunday, May 30, 2021, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
(AP / Butch Dill )
Arkansas catcher Casey Opitz (12) celebrates with pitcher Kevin Kopps after they defeated Tennessee to win the NCAA college baseball championship game during the Southeastern Conference tournament Sunday, May 30, 2021, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

FAYETTEVILLE — The No. 1 Arkansas Razorbacks looked stoic Monday when the ESPN cameras showed the scene in their team locker room at Baum-Walker Stadium.

The University of Arkansas just had been announced as the No. 1 seed for the NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament, but there was so little drama about the selection the Razorbacks simply watched the show with subdued reactions.

For a team that has won all 15 weekends this season, has been No. 1 for the past two months and leads the nation in wins at 46-10, it was an expected validation.

Arkansas at Fayetteville Regional

WHEN 2 p.m., Friday

WHERE Baum-Walker Stadium (11,531)

RECORDS NJIT 26-22; Arkansas 46-10

RADIO Razorback Sports Network

INTERNET ESPN-Plus

SHORT HOPS Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said the Razorbacks’ pitching rotation is still undecided, and he probably will take until Thursday to announce it. … The Razorbacks are hosting their ninth NCAA regional and their fourth in a row. … Arkansas is the national No. 1 seed for the first time. … NJIT is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance.

Upcoming Schedule

TODAY Off

WEDNESDAY Off

THURSDAY Off

FRIDAY 2 p.m., NJIT

SATURDAY TBA, Fayetteville Regional

SUNDAY TBA, Fayetteville Regional

For 19th-year Coach Dave Van Horn, playing an almost complete schedule on the back side of the covid-19 pandemic and entering the postseason ranked No. 1 was gratifying.

“It’s still really special to sit there and see your name called,” Van Horn said. “We’ve had such a good season up to this point. We’re super excited. Happy to be here, here we go again. It was exciting.”

Now the SEC regular-season and tournament champion Razorbacks, bestowed the top seed for the first time in program history, will have to go earn more success.

The Razorbacks’ NCAA Tournament run will begin at 2 p.m. on Friday at Baum-Walker Stadium against NJIT (26-22), a first-timer in the tournament. The Highlanders were declared the winner of the America East Tournament on Saturday as the only undefeated team left in the field after weather issues canceled their game against Stony Brook.

NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology), riding a program-record nine-game winning streak, has won 18 of its past 22 games.

They will be up against a team that has not lost two games on any weekend and has fallen in back-to-back games only during a three-game losing streak from March 14-19.

“They’ve taught me it is possible for a team to show up every weekend and every game and give you everything they’ve got,” Van Horn said of the Razorbacks. “Because that’s what we saw. Even in games we lost, these guys, they busted it, and they were usually tight games.

“I don’t know, it’s just been a fun team to be around.”

Arkansas infielder Cullen Smith said winning the SEC Tournament would help the Razorbacks maintain the momentum they’ve carried all year.

“With this team, it’s so resilient, and the attitude we have towards every game is … this game is the biggest game of the season,” he said. “When you get into postseason play, that’s actually how a lot of teams treat it, but we treat every single game like that.

“We just know we’re some dogs, man. We know we’re the best team in the country for a reason. There’s absolutely no doubt about that. We’re ready to go get it. We’re ready to give it our best shot, that’s for sure.”

Shortstop Jalen Battles, coming off an MVP performance at the SEC Tournament, also said the momentum remains the same.

“We’re a very confident team,” he said. “I know we think we can play with anybody and beat them, especially if we have our fans as well going into the regional tournament. It’s going to be even more fun.”

The Razorbacks will host their fourth consecutive NCAA regional and their ninth overall.

In Friday’s 7 p.m. game at Baum-Walker Stadium, regional No. 2 seed Nebraska (31-12) will face Northeastern (36-10).

The Cornhuskers won the Big Ten regular-season championship (the conference did not have a tournament), and the Huskies captured their first Colonial Athletic Association Tournament championship.

Arkansas was one of nine SEC teams to receive a tournament berth and one of six to earn a hosting spot among the top 16 national seeds, along with 3 seed Tennessee, 4 seed Vanderbilt, 7 seed Mississippi State, 12 seed Ole Miss and 15 seed Florida.

South Carolina was also named a host in a regional in which Old Dominion is the top regional seed at No. 11 overall.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how Nebraska earned its automatic bid.

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