Mr. Consistency goes back to Omaha

 Chris Lee   in Baseball

It wasn't the easiest season for Arkansas, but Dave Van Horn has the Razorbacks in Omaha for the seventh time. 

Photo courtesy of Arkansas athletics.

It hasn't been quite the regular season Arkansas envisioned, but the Razorbacks and coach Dave Van Horn are heading to Omaha anyway. 

The Razorbacks, D1 Baseball’s No. 2-ranked program coming into the season, didn’t win the Southeastern Conference or even the SEC West. They didn’t host a regional and went into the postseason on a slide after losing their final two SEC series (Vanderbilt, Alabama) and lost both of their SEC tournament games. 

When you win this consistently, it’s easy to be taken for granted. Ask Florida State coach Mike Martin Jr., who went to the NCAA tournament in his only two seasons, and even went to the College World Series in 2019, and still was fired this week. 

Or look no further than the Razorbacks’ own division, where Ole Miss coach Mike Biancowho has a remarkably consistent track record of his own—has been on thin ice for a few years, though that’s likely changed with the Rebels joining Arkansas in Omaha.

The one thing that’s eluded Van Horn is a CWS title; everyone knows the story of how close the Razorbacks got to one in 2018. Push that aside, and nearly everyone else can stand in line. Almost no active college coach has won with as much significance as Van Horn, who’s been at Arkansas since 2003. 

Consider Van Horn’s résumé:

  • 18 NCAA tournaments in 19 tries. (There was no NCAA tournament in 2020.) Van Horn’s only miss was 2016. Florida State’s the only program to go to more NCAA tournaments in that time.
  • Seven College World Series appearances, counting the one ahead. The Razorbacks also went in 2004, 2009, 2012, 2015, 2018 and 2019. Only Texas (nine times) and Florida (eight) have been more since Van Horn’s been in Fayetteville. (Cal State Fullerton, LSU and Oregon State have also been seven times in that span.)
  • Two SEC championships, including a shared one in 2004, and a tournament title in 2021.

Little came easy for Arkansas this year. 

The Razorbacks lost Golden Spikes Award winner Kevin Kopps to graduation and then one of the country’s best starters, Peyton Pallette, to a season-ending injury before the year began. Talented starter Jax Wiggins has struggled to a 6.12 ERA and while prized freshman Hagen Smith (4.85) has looked great at times, there were struggles in much of SEC play. Van Horn unexpectedly relied on a freshman, Brady Tygart, to close. 

The offense—expected to be one of the country’s best—didn’t quite hit expectations. Preseason All-American Robert Moore is hitting .223/.366/.420. Star freshman Peyton Stovall (.286/.375/.411) didn’t quite provide the pop expected of him. Brady Slavens (.259/.340/.536), expected to be one of the league's best middle-of-the-order hitters, was good, but not great. 

And here’s Arkansas anyway as one of the last eight standing, because few know how to prepare for June better than Van Horn.

How’d Arkansas do it? 

Connor Noland (6 2/3 scoreless innings) struggled some down the regular-season stretch, but returned to form with one of the best outings of the NCAA tournament in a win over North Carolina on Saturday. Will McEntire wasn’t a weekend starter but he was fresh on Sunday and Van Horn trusted him with the ball. He gave the Razorbacks 5 2/3 scoreless innings. From there, Arkansas mixed and matched five relievers including Smith, who also pitched well late in high-leverage situations in the Stillwater regional to help the ‘Hawgs get to Chapel Hill.

As for hitting, Stovall has been on a postseason tear, Slavens has gotten huge hits when it matters (including the one to send Arkansas to Omaha) while a pair of key transfers (Michael Turner and Chris Lanzilli) were steady most of the year and continued that into the postseason. 

Oh, and the fielding. Arkansas was supposed to be great at that and it was, with a .982 team percentage. The team’s foundation was athletic shortstop Jalen Battles, who was great again this year. Wallace, despite a .929 fielding mark, made several incredible plays during postseason. Moore and Noland, meanwhile, made the SEC’s All-Defensive team

Arkansas now awaits the winner of UConn-Stanford in Omaha. They’ll be a tough out for anyone as Van Horn again has gotten his team to peak at the right time.