Photographs by Ben Goff
Georgia coach Scott Stricklin watches from the dugout during a game against Arkansas on Friday, April 13, 2017, in Fayetteville.
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas Razorbacks Coach Dave Van Horn got to know Scott Stricklin in the summer of 2011 when both coached for USA Baseball's national collegiate team.
At the time, Stricklin was Kent State's coach.
"He told me he wanted to be a coach in the SEC," Van Horn said Tuesday. "I laughed. I said, 'Do you really?' "
Stricklin got his wish when he was hired at Georgia in 2013, and he found out what Van Horn was talking about in regard to the SEC's degree of difficulty.
Georgia was a combined 79-87-1 in Stricklin's first four seasons, including 43-75-1 in the SEC. The Bulldogs never finished with a winning record or won more than 11 SEC games.
A record like that will often get an SEC coach fired, but Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity made the decision to bring Stricklin back. Stricklin has rewarded McGarity's confidence.
The Bulldogs (35-16, 16-11) are ranked No. 13 in the USA Today coaches poll and are a lock to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. They host the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville for a three-game series starting Thursday.
Van Horn predicted before the season that Georgia would be glad it retained Stricklin and that the Bulldogs would be one of the SEC's better teams despite their 25-32 record in 2017.
"I just know Coach Stricklin, and I knew that when he was given the opportunity to take that team another year that they were going to be good," Van Horn said. "There were a lot of young guys on the field that if they continued to develop -- which they have obviously -- they were going to be a handful this year."
Seven of the Bulldogs' position players are returning starters, and two of their weekend starting pitchers are back.
Van Horn said he's glad Georgia's administration showed patience with Stricklin, whose Kent State team lost to the Razorbacks 8-1 in the 2012 College World Series.
"He's a great coach," Van Horn said. "Sometimes it just takes time. You've got to get the right personnel in. You've got to get the right mindset
"It's not a two- or three-year process. Not in this league. There's too many good teams. It may take you five years."
Relief ace Matt Cronin said the work of right-handed relievers Jake Reindl and Barrett Loseke, who combined for six saves while Cronin was out with mononucleosis, could pay dividends for Arkansas in the long run.
"Them stepping up is huge for us. Now if I can come back to how I was before the sickness, I think it's going to be great for the staff in general," said Cronin, who ranked second in the SEC with nine saves when he went out April 21.
Asked whether Cronin's absence might wind up being a positive, Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said "no doubt."
"They got to go in there and ... prove it to themselves and the team that they can get it done," he said.
Cronin said he's regained all but about 3 or 4 pounds of the 10 he lost during his three-week recovery.
"I'm just glad about that," Cronin said of his relatively short bout with the illness. "I remember my mom telling me about it. When she was my age, she had it and it knocked her down for about two months. I'm just thankful that I only felt bad for about four or five days."
On the road again
Arkansas will play its regular-season SEC series finale on the road for the seventh consecutive year.
The Razorbacks last played at home to end the SEC schedule in 2011 when they won two of three games against Ole Miss.
During the previous six years the Razorbacks wrapped up SEC play at Tennessee, Auburn, Missouri, Georgia, Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
"It'll be that way again next year, too, because the way it works is that it's all about finals," Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. "So we play the first series at home and then we play the last series on the road.
"I'm not in love with it. I'd rather play the first series on the road and finish at home. But it is what it is."
SEC teams also play an unbalanced schedule because they face 10 of 13 conference opponents.
Arkansas' four SEC East opponents -- Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky -- are a combined 64-44 in conference games. The East teams the Razorbacks don't play -- Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Missouri -- are 34-47.
"Everybody can make a case for they don't like where they start or where they finish or having to play this team and not that team from the other division," Van Horn said. "You never know who's going to be good. You're playing all the top teams and not playing the bottom team in that division.
"It's interesting, so what do you do? Do you play the whole league? You have one nonconference weekend and then you go into conference play?"
A full round-robin schedule would mean playing 39 SEC games.
"Then we'd just all beat each other up and we wouldn't have anything left," Van Horn said. "Throwing in nine more games, it'd be crazy."
In four games since a five-strikeout performance at LSU on May 5, freshman Heston Kjerstad has gone 5 for 16 with 3 RBI, 5 runs scored and 2 extra-base hits.
"You know, that's just the way baseball works," Kjerstad said. "You're going to have days where you go 0 for 5 and you're going to have days you get four hits. You just have to learn from the rough days and keep your head up and keep playing."
Junior Hunter Wilson had a wild ride in two starts at first base against Texas A&M. Wilson went 2 for 6 in starts on Friday and Sunday with a double, walk and 2 RBI. He also was involved in several interesting defensive plays.
Wilson came off the bag to catch a throw on a ground ball Friday, but he jabbed his foot back to the bag for an out -- which was determined after the call on the field was reversed. He whiffed on a wind-blown foul ball near the Texas A&M dugout Friday, and he had a throwing error to second base on the start of a potential double play ball Sunday.
Wilson had started nine games this year at second and third base prior to the weekend.
"He made a little bit of a wild throw, but everything was good," Coach Dave Van Horn said. "The technique was good. He just made a wild throw. Other than that, I thought he played really good defense. He brought energy. He was a tough out."
Sports on 05/16/2018
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