It was Omaha or bust for the fifth-seeded Arkansas Razorbacks and 12th seed Ole Miss Monday afternoon at sun-drenched Baum-Walker Stadium.
It was the eighth meeting of the two clubs this season with the Rebels holding a 4-3 lead in the series after routing the Razorbacks, 13-5, on Sunday to force the rubber match after the Razorbacks had won the first game of the best 2-out-of-3 series, 11-2, on Friday.
Thanks to a stellar relief performance by Bentonville junior Cody Scroggins and a 12-hit, 14-run performance by the Hogs at the plate, Arkansas will make their 10th College World Series appearance, their seventh under coach Dave Van Horn.
The Razorbacks (46-18) face the Florida Seminoles (41-21) at 6 p.m. CT on ESPN at TD Ameritrade Park. Michigan (46-20) and Texas Tech (44-18) square off at 1 p.m. Saturday on ESPN and are in the same bracket with Arkansas.
On Sunday at 1 p.m., Vanderbilt (54-11) meets Louisville (49-16) on ESPN, while Mississippi State (51-13) faces Auburn (38-26) at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN2 in the other bracket.
The Razorbacks will be the third SEC team Florida State has faced in the postseason play. The Seminoles, whose coach Mike Martin will retire at the end of the season after 40 years with the program, eliminated Georgia from the Athens Regional by the scores of 12-3, and 10-1. Florida State advanced to the CWS by sweeping LSU, 6-4 and 5-4 in 12 innings, in the Baton Rouge Super Regional.
Ole Miss was the only team this season to win a series at Baum-Walker Stadium, and the way the Rebels trounced the Razorbacks on Sunday, they had some momentum going into the game.
When freshman starter Patrick Wicklander failed to make it through the second inning, the tension was palpable among Hog fans in the ballpark, but they had nothing to worry about. Scroggins had one of his finest outings as a Razorback, pitching 4 and 1/3 scoreless innings with eight strikeouts against just two hits and one walk.
The Razorbacks also turned it on at the plate with right fielder Heston Kjerstad, catcher Casey Opitz, and first baseman Trevor Ezell pounding out three hits apiece to overwhelm Ole Miss’ pitching. Ezell had a fantastic series for Arkansas, going 7 of 14 (.500) at the plate. He belted three doubles and a home run for 4 RBI.
The victory was a great one for this retooled Razorback team, who returned just eight of 27 roster players from last year’s CWS runner-up squad.
“What a great win for our program, the state, the university,” Van Horn said after victory and Hogpile celebration. “I could go on and on. The fans. For us to get back to Omaha for the second year in a row. It’s hard enough just to get there once every now and then. But to get there two years in a row with a bunch of guys that watched on the side last year or maybe weren’t even with us.
“What a thrill for me as coach to be a part of this and to watch these guys celebrate and the joy. It’s like I told them at the beginning, the pressure for me is during the season. This is fun for me. I love Omaha. I love going to Omaha. But I really, really, truly mean it when I [say] I want them to get there, and I just kind of want to go with them. It was just an incredible, incredible ride, a journey or whatever you want to call it this season. Win or lose it’s going to finish in Omaha and that’s where you want to finish.”
While it may seem this Razorback squad was destined to return to Omaha for unfinished business, that was simply not the case at the beginning of the year.
Certainly Arkansas returned some talent with the likes of Kjerstad, Casey Martin, and Dominic Fletcher, but everywhere else was a question mark as Van Horn had to deal with a major turnover in talent.
Arkansas was ranked in all the polls, but in most they were the lowest-ranked of eight SEC teams. When the season started Ole Miss was in the top 10, not the Razorbacks. Voters put Arkansas in the polls mainly because they believed in the program Van Horn has built at Arkansas.
But every move Van Horn made seemed to just work from bringing in Ezell as a graduate transfer, to putting complete trust in Isaiah Campbell as his Friday ace, to playing freshmen from Day 1 in Jacob Nesbit at third base and Christian Franklin in left field. Nearly every move Van Horn made this season seemed to work.
The Razorbacks have plenty of talent, but all year long, the Hogs have shown character, grit and resiliency, and those qualities allowed them to win a share of the SEC Western Division title with Mississippi State and to finally put away Ole Miss after losing a home series to them and being eliminated by them in the SEC Tournament.
This Razorback squad was hardly destined for Omaha. They made the College World Series on hard work, talent, and trust in themselves and their coaching staff. The Razorbacks made their breaks all year long. Luck had little to do with it.
“It’s just awesome to win that Game 3 and send us back to Omaha this year, said Kjerstad. It’s been a fun year with all the guys, and you know it’s taken everybody on the team. The whole roster. Everybody’s contributed. That’s why we’re a team. It took a team effort, and we’re excited to get back to Omaha.”
Opitz said the challenge and strain of fighting their way through the SEC in the regular season has them prepared to move on to Omaha and make another challenge for a CWS title.
“You know, just playing in the SEC, you’re ready for this moment. You kind of tell with all these SEC teams in these supers, it’s just when you go throughout that grind in the regular season then you’re ready for these moments. You’re ready for these tough games, and we proved that right today.”