Photographs by J.T. Wampler
Razorbacks right fielder Eric Cole celebrates with fans following Arkansas' 14-4 win over South Carolina Monday June 11, 2018 during the NCAA Super Regional at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
FAYETTEVILLE -- Freshmen joining the Arkansas Razorbacks' baseball team for the 2016 season had high hopes.
The program was coming off its third College World Series appearance in seven years and had made 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, including 13 in a row since Dave Van Horn became the Razorbacks' coach in 2003.
Then the unthinkable happened.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville not only missed the NCAA Tournament in 2016 but also ended the season with a 13-game losing streak.
After starting 15-3, the Razorbacks finished 26-29 and went 7-23 in SEC play.
"I had never been a part of anything like it," Van Horn said. "We were pretty good early, but we were very young and we didn't have enough pitching.
"I mean, Cody Scroggins is a pitcher for us now and he started at third base against LSU that season. What does that tell you?"
The Razorbacks lost 2015 National Player of the Year Andrew Benintendi as a sophomore because he was draft eligible and Boston picked him No. 7 overall.
Three of Arkansas' top recruits -- infielder Cole Stobbe, pitcher Tyler Benninghoff and catcher Ben Rortvedt -- signed professionally.
"We got smoked by the draft like I've never been crushed," Van Horn said. "I'm trying to play Clark Eagan on the infield, and he's an outfielder. I mean, it was nuts."
Arkansas' freshmen on the 2016 team felt the burden of the Razorbacks' worst season since they finished 24-30 in 2000.
"I think a lot of people were looking down on us like, 'Oh, this class is just a fill-in,' " said Arkansas junior pitcher Kacey Murphy, a freshman in 2016. "We definitely didn't set the pace for the fans. We didn't give them what they deserved.
"But we grew from that season, we bounced back, and we showed everyone we had the talent to do something good -- to do this."
On Monday night, the Razorbacks -- including several key contributors from the 2016 freshman class -- celebrated along with a sellout crowd at Baum Stadium after Arkansas beat South Carolina 14-4 to win the NCAA Fayetteville Super Regional and advance to the College World Series.
The Razorbacks (44-19) play Texas (42-21) at 1 p.m. Sunday at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.
Three Razorbacks who were freshmen in 2016 started Monday night: junior right fielder Eric Cole, junior catcher Grant Koch and redshirt sophomore pitcher Isaiah Campbell. Junior Barrett Loseke pitched out of the bullpen.
Arkansas' top two starting pitchers are junior Blaine Knight and Murphy. Junior Jake Reindl and Scroggins -- a redshirt sophomore -- also pitch out of the bullpen.
That's eight players from the 2016 freshman class who have played significant roles in the Razorbacks' run to Omaha.
"To come in with this group of guys after we weren't expected to do that much, and to do what we've done now," Koch said, "it's pretty incredible."
Cole, who went 3 for 3 and scored 5 runs Monday night, caught the final out on a fly ball from Jonah Bride.
"This is what I signed up for when I came here," Cole said of getting to play in the College World Series. "But this is also absolutely unbelievable.
"It's surreal after we won seven SEC games my freshman year. We didn't even make the SEC Tournament."
Arkansas returned to the NCAA Tournament last season and finished 45-19 with a 3-2 loss to Missouri State in the Fayetteville Regional championship game.
"That was just a tough year in 2016, but we learned from it and we got better," Koch said. "We were resilient. Last year we showed glimpses of what we could do, and then this year we put it all together."
Koch, who is from Fayetteville, watched from the Baum Stadium stands when Arkansas beat Missouri State to win a super regional title in 2015. Monday night he was among the Razorbacks exchanging high-fives with fans, signing autographs and posing for photos.
"I've never been happier," Koch said. "I've never experienced something like taking that victory lap around the stadium and celebrating with these fans that support us so well.
"Helping Arkansas get to Omaha is all I've ever wanted to do."
Van Horn doesn't want to ever experience another season like 2016, but he said it had its benefits.
"Sometimes you have to go through that, you know?" Van Horn said. "It was hard to watch, but we learned from it.
"I told the coaches then, 'We just need to keep our mouths shut and not point fingers at each other, and we're going to overcome this one day.' And that's what we did."
With a lot of help from the 2016 freshman class.
Sports on 06/13/2018
NWADG.com for only
$0.99 for the first month.