Hosting NCAA Regional first step in trek to Omaha

Photo: Walt Beazley,

The Arkansas Razorbacks and their supporters hope any and all fans from New Jersey, Nebraska, and Massachusetts in town for the NCAA Baseball Regional being held here this weekend enjoy the considerable hospitality of Fayetteville and the surrounding environs during their visit.

Fayetteville is a cool and inviting town where the best of the South and the Midwest conjoin to form a flavor that is as distinct as it is authentic. It’s a friendly and welcoming community.

However, the diamond at Baum-Walker Stadium isn’t exactly neutral ground for those who don’t call the Hogs.

Sure, the NCAA forces the host school to strip away some of the color and atmosphere that makes The House That Norm (DeBriyn, former Hog coach from 1970-92) Built one of the best atmospheres in college baseball to provide a more neutral feel for the double-elimination tournament, but any fans from Lincoln, Boston, or Newark need to understand that it’s going to get a bit loud and rowdy this weekend at the ballpark.

Next up for the Razorbacks

Opponent: vs New Jersey Institute of Technology
When: 2 p.m. Friday, June 4
Where: Fayetteville
Television: ESPN3 (streaming)

» See tournament bracket

After having limited crowds for the bulk of the season because of Covid-19 protocols, Hog fans are practically slobbering to celebrate their No. 1 Razorbacks, who are on an eight-game winning streak that includes wrapping up the SEC regular-season title with a sweep of Florida two weeks ago and then last week’s run to the program’s first SEC Baseball Tournament title at Hoover, Ala. Yes, Hog fans are riding high.

Full capacity means Baum-Walker Stadium will be packed to the gills with Arkansas fans this weekend, sporting a “root Hog or die” attitude.

As the late, great Razorback P.A. announcer used to say, “This is baseball!”

It will be staged as it should be with fans packing the stands, and rooting for the home team. What a glorious atmosphere it will be for Arkansas fans.

The New Jersey Highlanders might get a bit of a break today with a 2 p.m. first pitch, but if I know Hog fans, many will be expending a vacation day from work to be in their spot for the first Hog Call of the tournament.

Heck, Razorbackers began camping out at the stadium as early as Wednesday evening to make sure they get the perfect spot in the Hog Pen, Arkansas’ open-seating area just beyond the outfield, for this afternoon’s game.

Razorback skipper Dave Van Horn announced Thursday that Caleb Bolden (2-0, 2.43 ERA) will start. The Highlanders’ Tyler Staffinger (6-5, 3.77 ERA) will be dealing to the Hogs.

The nightcap will pit the Nebraska Cornhuskers (31-12) against the Northeastern Huskies (36-10) at 7 p.m.

The two losing squads will play at 2 p.m. Saturday with the two winning squads squaring off at 8 p.m.

If the tournament lingers until Monday, the championship game is scheduled for 6 p.m., but the time could be adjusted for television or weather.

While there are no guarantees, if the seeding holds, there will be a showdown Saturday at 8 p.m. between Arkansas, the SEC champs, and Nebraska, the Big 10 champions.

The Cornhuskers were more than a little bit miffed that as a conference champion they were sent to the regional hosted by the No. 1 overall seed Razorbacks.

Making the expected matchup that much more compelling is the fact that Van Horn made his name coaching Nebraska from 1998-92 and took the Cornhuskers to two College World Series before returning to his alma mater to coach the Razorbacks in 2003. Nebraska head coach Will Bolt actually played for Van Horn on both of those CWS teams.

Yes, that was close to two decades ago, and tons of water has flowed under the bridge, but it’s a tasty morsel making this regional all the more interesting and personal for fans of both programs.

Van Horn said two Razorbacks will not play Friday, including first baseman Brady Slavens, who injured his ankle against Vanderbilt last week in the SEC Tournament. Slavens is on the 27-man roster for the tourney, but it’s uncertain when Van Horn might deploy him.

“Obviously, I think swinging the bat, there is a little twisting in there on that front foot when you start to swing,” said Van Horn. “That might be something that we’re not ready to experiment with yet — not tomorrow anyway.”

Pitcher Zebulon Vermillion, however, will not pitch this weekend after suffering pain in his right biceps.

“He does have a little bit of inflammation in there, fluid in there,” Van Horn said. “They’re working on getting it out of there so we can get him back.”

The big question on many fans minds is will the best player in college baseball pitch Friday? “Collegiate Baseball” named Razorback right-handed reliever Kevin Kopps its National Player of the Year on Thursday for his dominating role this season for the Razorbacks.

Kopps has the nation’s best ERA at 0.81 in 66 1/2 innings on the mound with 10 victories and 10 saves against no losses. He’s only allowed 6 runs in 28 appearances, and at one point this season went 28 innings without surrounding a run.

Kopps might be held out of action to pitch Saturday, or he might pitch today so that he would have a day of rest before an elimination game or championship game on Sunday. Either way, he’s an ace in the hole for the Hogs.