Open season: Hogs are in SEC crosshairs

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, February 17, 2022
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn reacts to a play during a game against Georgia on Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Fayetteville.
( Charlie Kaijo)
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn reacts to a play during a game against Georgia on Sunday, May 9, 2021, in Fayetteville.

The most interesting comment in a January one-hour interview with Dave Van Horn came after a question about the strength of the SEC for the 2022 baseball season.

It brought to mind the kind of thing Nolan Richardson said after he led the Arkansas basketball program to the 1994 national championship.

About the only thing the Hogs haven’t done in 19 seasons under Van Horn is win the national title, but he made it clear that seeing Arkansas on his team’s uniform motivates the opposition.

“I do know that we will face teams gunning for us,” Van Horn said. “Teams look at us differently. They want to beat us badly.”

A loaded SEC may have wanted to beat the Hogs last year, but rarely did. The Hogs won every series, won both the SEC regular-season and tournament titles, and spent almost the entire season ranked as the nation’s No. 1 team.

About the only thing the team did not do was advance to Omaha. They were one game away when North Carolina State squeaked out a 3-2 victory in Game 3 of the super regional at Baum-Walker Stadium.

The Hogs went 50-13 overall and 26-8 against SEC teams, including a 4-0 record against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, the two teams that played in the CWS title series. The Hogs swept three games from MSU in Starkville on the last weekend in March by a combined score of 25-11.

“That team was amazing from Day 1,” Van Horn said. “I give a lot of credit to our players. They had an incredible desire to win. They started the season playing so hard and just never slowed down.”

Twelve times the Hogs have won at least 40 games under Van Horn. They have played in the NCAA tournament 17 times. They have six trips to the College World Series. They have two overall SEC crowns and have won or shared the SEC West six times.

There are heavy losses from last year, notably the heart of the pitching staff, closer Kevin Kopps, the winner of every national major player of the year award. Friday night starter Patrick Wicklander also departed.

Perhaps the SEC’s best defenders the last three seasons, center fielder Christian Franklin and catcher Casey Opitz, are also gone.

It was a play that Franklin almost made in the final game that Van Horn remembers the most.

“We had the lead with two outs in the third and they got a two-out walk after Kevin had him 1-2,” Van Horn said. “They stole a base and then the next pitch was a drive to right-center. Christian had a bead on it and he jumped at the wall. I’ve seen the replay. He missed that ball by 1 inch. He’d been sick with strep throat all week. He hit his elbow on the wall and his glove is 1 inch away and it’s a two-run homer.

“That’s how the game works. It’s such a fine margin.”

However, there is no one around the SEC feeling sorry for Van Horn. The Hogs are loaded again. The batting order is impressive, thanks to some major additions from the transfer portal. Roles on the pitching staff are undefined, but there is huge talent.

The Hogs expect a bounce-back seasons from pitcher Connor Noland, injured last season. The former football quarterback figures into the plans for what could be another great weekend rotation. There is amazing freshman talent on the pitching staff and as position players.

“I don’t like to mention names on freshmen, but there are at least five (pitchers) that could help us a lot this year even as starters or on the back end (as closers),” Van Horn said. 

“And as far as our lineup, there are three or four freshmen who will help our offense. A couple could play every day. They are going to be good this year.”

It’s part of an incredible recruiting run Van Horn’s staff has been on for several years and looks to continue.

“This ’22 class is good and the ’23 class is rated No. 1 by some,” he said. “We may lose some (recruits to pro baseball), but we should be good for a long time.”

A big bump in facilities is paying dividends, and now visitor are touring the building. The Hogs moved into new offices, locker rooms and training facilities behind the right field wall last summer. The facility has such detail and magnitude that a tour takes one solid hour.

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“In terms of bringing kids in, this should help us go to another level,” said Nate Thompson, hitting coach and recruiting coordinator. “Honestly, what we have done in the last two classes was amazing because we were shut down because of covid.”

Recruiting was done via Zoom, phone and by emailing video of the construction site.

Van Horn does not downplay what the new facilities mean, but he is guarding against complacency.

“We are not going to get spoiled by this building,” he said. “We may have a white-collar facility, but the key will be our blue-collar attitude.”

There are plenty with that blue-collar attitude on the 2022 Hogs. It may start with Robert Moore, the feisty second baseman with a lot of power. He led the team in home runs (16), hits (66) and total bases (130) last season. He also drove in 53 runs.

Moore started as a 17-year-old early high school graduate as a true freshman in the covid-shortened 2020 season. He started 61 games last year.

“He was good (in 2021), but he’s really improved,” Van Horn said. “He’s learned the strike zone. He’s improved his right side swing.”

That’s in reference to his lopsided stats as a switch hitter. His power numbers from the left side were awesome, but not so much as a right hander.

“He’s worked hard to be as strong from the right side,” Thompson said. “His splits were significantly different. He’s much better now. He’s worked on approach (of the strike zone).”

Improved approach is also the main improvement for the other two big boppers returning, Brady Slavens and Cayden Wallace. They both hit 14 homers. Slavens drove in 63 runs, Wallace 44.

Wallace, who played right field last year as a true freshman, will return to third base, his position before he arrived on campus. Slavens played mostly at first base last year, but looks to be the starter in right field.

Improved approach by Moore, Wallace and Slavens was clearly a big part of the fall emphasis from Thompson. Slavens struck out 63 times last year. Wallace (61) and Moore (51) also had too many.

“We want to cut down the punch outs,” Thompson said. “Slavens was more selective in the fall. He’s very aggressive by nature. He tends to expand the zone. He showed a refined approach in the fall. All of them worked hard on that.”

Van Horn and Thompson think Braydon Webb, a senior returnee, may be ready for a breakout year. He sparkled late in the year after a woeful start.

“I think it clicked for him late,” Thompson said. “He had a really good fall. We had him in the four hole to start last season. He had been that good in preseason but he just pressed too much.

“We changed his swing path a little before this fall and he was really good. He started out well and never looked back.

“He’s always been an electric athlete. If he realizes his potential, he’s a special player. He has all of the tools with real explosiveness. He’s turned himself into a really good outfielder.”

Webb looks poised to take over in center field, but will be challenged by Zack Gregory. Webb made spectacular catches in left last year.

Hard-hitting transfers Jace Bohrofen (Oklahoma) and Chris Lanzilli (Wake Forest) are also big bats who could get time in the outfield or as a designated hitter.

Bohrofen, a sophomore who hits left handed, followed his father and older brother to Oklahoma after a three-year courtship from Arkansas.

“He was one of the first players we targeted when I got here,” Thompson said. “He was friends with Cayden and when he went in the portal we jumped. He played well (last) summer in Cape Cod. He’s talented with the bat.

“Jace is very hungry. He made some adjustments in the fall. He made the comment that he really enjoyed our (work ethic) culture. He has ability to hit and the strength to match anyone here. He’s got a good eye and will take a walk. He’s quiet, but competitive.”

Lanzilli, a senior who hits from the right side, has big power, too.

“He had an up-and-down time at Wake,” Thompson said. “But when we watched video, we saw his thump. He’s been exposed to good pitching in a good conference (in the ACC) and is not afraid of a challenge.

“He came here ready to try new things. Older guys sometimes are set in their ways. Chris hits the ball hard. He has the potential for double-digit home runs.”

Opitz won’t be replaced easily, but Van Horn and Thompson both sing the praises of Kent State graduate transfer Michael Tuner. The 6-2, 205-pound catcher is perhaps exactly what this team needed to be complete.

“We knew when we got him that he could swing (the bat),” Thompson said. “But he exceeded expectations. He’s over .300 for his career. It wasn’t in the SEC, but he’s pretty special. He has juice in that bat.

“His numbers are good, great walk-to-strikeout ratio. He doesn’t swing and miss and he doesn’t chase.”

Van Horn knows replacing the leadership of Opitz is nearly impossible, but Turner has that kind of makeup, too.

“Turner can block, throw and he can rake,” Van Horn said.

There is competition at catcher from sophomore Dylan Leach, who started 10 games and played in 17 last year.

“That’s a good one-two punch with Turner and Leach,” Van Horn said. “Leach brings energy and he’s made a move with the bat. But Turner has the kind of lefty bat who can hit in the three hole.”

There is also high potential for 6-5 freshman Max Soliz, listed as a catcher/outfielder, but with enough of a bat to be the designated hitter.

“He made a move with the bat late in the fall,” Van Horn said.

The infield has talent, depth and experience. Moore is the anchor at second. Jalen Battles, the talented returnee at shortstop, is coming off shoulder surgery. That double-play combo is as good as any in the SEC.

“Jalen sent us some tape of his swing in December,” Van Horn said. “It looked beautiful. He was making a big-time move this summer and fall before he had to get the shoulder fixed. He’d be a pretty good eight- or nine-hole hitter.”

Peyton Stovall is a freshman with potential to play multiple infield spots. The Haughton, La., product with the lefty bat injured an oblique muscle early in the fall, but caught fire when he returned with what coaches think is a magical bat.

Some projected Stovall to be a first-round pick last year.

“He’s a special hitter,” Thompson said. “He has plate discipline and has real pop, too. He will take his walks and drive the ball to all fields. I think he’s going to be one of the special players we’ve had in our program.”

Stovall may eventually move to a middle infield spot — probably second base — but is slated for first base this season.

“With that bat, he will make us play him,” Van Horn said. “He’s got an advanced approach. He just knows the zone. He may can hit leadoff for us, but we may just put him third and leave him. He has power, hits for average and takes a walk.”

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Thompson sees power throughout the lineup. The Hogs set a school record with 109 homers last year. There is that kind of power again.

“We have nice left-right mix,” he said. “As far as power, I think we are going to have as much as we’ve ever had. Obviously, we have big parts back. We were swinging it good in the fall and a lot of guys driving the ball. Honestly, we added big power.”

The question is with the pitching, but the fall was exciting in that area, too.

“The best fall we’ve ever had was 2020 after the covid shutdown,” Van Horn said. “All of our guys came back highly motivated, but this fall was right there.

“Our pitchers came back really good and got better and better. Really, you go through our staff and there are 11 or 12 right off the top that you list that you ought to talk about who should help you win games.

“We just don’t know the roles yet. But it’s a good mix, three or four really good lefties.”

The Hogs lost Peyton Pallette to an arm injury and that's a big blow, but there is good news on the injury front on two other pitchers.

“We are going to get Issac Bracken and Nick Griffin back,” Hobbs said of the pitchers who missed 2021 due to surgeries. “Both have faced hitters. There is positive feedback on both.”

The staff has experience in Zebulon Vermillion, Evan Gray, Heston Tole, Zack Morris, Kole Ramage, Gabe Starks, Jaxon Wiggins, Evan Gray and Elijah Trest.

Wiggins and Starks sparkled with electric fastballs, but control was sometimes an issue as freshmen. Wiggins was just average in the fall. Starks came back from summer ball in California sporting a new pitch, a solid cutter.

“We want to see if they can take some steps this year,” Hobbs said. “That’s a lot of firepower.

“Taylor and Gray threw more strikes in the fall. They always have had good stuff.

“Tole may be that guy who makes a big move. He throws so many strikes and his fastball keeps getting better. The time he got in games last year was video game stuff: 12 innings, 20 strikeouts and just 1 walk. He had a good summer.”

There is great fascination with the freshman pitchers.

“There are really a lot of them with great stuff,” Hobbs said. “But what will separate them is who can handle the moment. It’s one thing to throw 95 and hit spots in a bullpen. Another thing is to hold runners and handle the big stage.”

Van Horn noticed several freshmen stepping up in the fall series.

“That’s the biggest thing we can test them for the fall,” Van Horn said. “That Friday night before the Texas (football game), we had a big crowd, maybe 4,000.

“We had three of those freshman pitchers say, ‘No problem, I want that,’ and that’s what you wanted to see. I think they can probably start or pitch in one-run games in the ninth. Now, you have to see can they hold runners in front of a packed stadium with 10,000.

“We may have some growing pains with them. But we have to be patient as coaches and the fans need to stay patient.”

Lefty Hagen Smith (6-3, 210) will start Game 2 of the Illinois State series, and right handers Nick Moten (6-1, 210) and Austin Ledbetter (6-1, 190) were starting candidates.

“Hagen had a fantastic fall,” Hobbs said. “We thought he’d be good and he was.

“Moten may have had arguably the best fall of any of our pitchers.”

Hobbs likes the competitiveness of Ledbetter, a great dual-sport athlete at Bryant. He was the quarterback on three state championship teams.

“He’s made of the right stuff,” Hobbs said. “He’s tough and likes the big stage. That’s what we liked of Connor, too. Arkansas high school football is big and both of those can handle the moment. They say, ‘I want the ball, Coach!’”

Brady Tygart (6-2, 205) and Jake Faherty (6-3, 180) dazzle with a big fastball.

“Tygart really ramped up (his velocity),” Hobbs said. “Faherty hits 98. They are exciting. You just have to see how they handle hitters. That’s when you find out. Our best work comes against our hitters.”

The Hogs should be in the middle of the SEC race. But Van Horn knows nothing will be easy. There are no weak teams.

“You will think I sound like a broken record with this, but the SEC is going to be really good, maybe better than ever,” Van Horn said.

“It’s partly because of teams keeping players because of the way covid affected the draft (to include fewer players the last two years) and partly because of the portal, but teams really have a deep roster.”

The SEC West is always tough.

“You look at someone like LSU,” Van Horn said, “they kept their hitters and with the new coach (Jay Johnson) bringing their best hitter from Arizona (Jacob Berry), they will have an incredible offense.

“I hear Ole Miss has 93% of its bats back. That’s incredible to get all of those good bats back. Mississippi State is really good again.”

Van Horn said to disregard preseason polls.

“It will be a fight until the end,” Van Horn said. “Who stays healthy and stays consistent will win.

“There are a lot of good programs and they are still going to be good. But you also have teams fighting to return to the level they had been and coaches fighting (for their jobs). So you will see a lot of strong teams.”

They all will be putting a bullseye on the Razorbacks. No one would want it any other way.


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