You have to be tough to be a Razorback, on or off the field, player or fan.
We were reminded of that truism Sunday when the Diamond Hogs fell short of making what seemed to be a destined trip to Omaha, Neb. for the College World Series for the third season in a row.
The back-to-back, one-run losses to North Carolina State — 6-5 on Saturday and 3-2 on Sunday — still hurt a couple of days later. They probably will for the rest of the summer or at least until preseason football practice begins in August to redirect our attention forward instead of back.
Like most other Razorback fans, I thought the baseball season would extend for at least another week or so with the hope that it would stretch through the end of the month and end with Arkansas being crowned College World Series champions.
It was a real possibility down to the Hogs’ last at-bat Sunday night, but even after a year where his Razorbacks accomplished so much — an SEC regular-season crown and an SEC Tournament title — coach Dave Van Horn’s chase for a national title continues. It’s the only thing the ultra-successful Van Horn hasn’t accomplished in his stellar 19 seasons as the Razorbacks’ head coach.
As we Hog fans know, winning a national title is a difficult chore that requires a confluence of will, talent, good fortune, and maybe even some out and out luck to happen.
As sports fans, we realize the odd’s on favorite doesn’t always win. The promise of the improbable is what keeps us coming back to our favorite sports time after time.
No doubt, Hog fans and the Razorbacks themselves are upset about the weekend loss in the Super Regional. We saw just how much the Hogs cared from the disappointment etched on their faces Sunday evening.
Still, these Hogs competed and won and lost with class. It was heartening to see Razorback all-everything pitcher Kevin Kopps sign autographs for fans an hour after the game in which he pitched is heart out for his teammates and them Sunday evening.
So much went right for Kopps, who considered moving on before being asked back by pitching coach Matt Hobbs for a sixth year, this season that it almost seemed incomprehensible that he would not succeed in leading the Hogs to victory on Sunday in his first start of the year.
Kopps didn’t have his best stuff, but he pitched with his soul own display into the ninth inning, but for whatever reason, his Hogs couldn’t provide the run support needed in a 3-2 loss that turned on the home run hit by the Wolfpack’s Joses Torres in the ninth inning.
We could sit here and pick the Hogs’ carcass clean like we were eating a plateful of ribs, but what good would it do? It would only prolong that hurt that all Arkansas fans are feeling at the moment.
I’d rather remember the good, like opening the season with victories over then top-10 rated Texas Tech, Texas, and TCU in the Star Farm College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas. Now, that’s the way to start a season.
The SEC sweeps of Mississippi State and Florida stand large as does winning two out of three on the road at LSU, Tennessee, and Ole Miss.
Winning every single regular-season series this year including 10-0 in SEC series is a monumental achievement that might not be duplicated for a long time, if ever.
For me the victory of the year came in the Razorbacks’ second game of the SEC Tournament at Hoover, Ala., when the Hogs cracked open their game with Vanderbilt late to win 6-4. The Commodores or the Razorbacks owned the No. 1 ranking for much of the year. That head-to-head meeting was highly anticipated and just an exhilarating pleasure to watch.
While Kevin Kopps became a statewide hero for young Razorbacks across the state, his exploits aren’t only ones worth lauding on this team stars.
How about second baseman Robert Moore, who might have the quickest pair of hands in the SEC? I loved how he shut the mouths of South Carolina fans who were teasing him by singing the Oompa Loompa song from 1971 “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” film by slapping a home run.
Despite his stature, Moore, of course, led the Hogs in homers, slapping 16 of the Arkansas’ school-record and nation-leading 109 homers.
I love the defensive tandem he and shortstop Jalen Battles created up the middle for the Razorbacks. It was great to see Battles break out as a star at Hoover and win the SEC Tournament MVP thanks not only to his stellar work in the field, but also for his key contribution at the plate.
The athleticism displayed by Arkansas’ outfield was exciting, particularly by center fielder Christian Franklin, who routinely made difficult plays look easy. Freshman Cayden Wallace might be his heir apparent at the position. He turned in an outstanding freshman season.
Starting out in the bullpen, Patrick Wicklander emerged as a strong starter for the Hogs with a compelling story of how he pulled his game back together after he discovered he had Type 1 Diabetes.
Designated hitter Charlie Welch emerged as a late-game hero for the Razorbacks, with his propensity to hammer home runs against lefties in high-pressure situations. He led Arkansas in batting average at .388, hitting 8 homers and 5 doubles in just 67 plate appearances. He hit a home run every 13.4 at-bats.
Last but certainly not least was catcher Casey Opitz. Without his masterful work behind the plate, this would have been a whole different season for the Hogs. The way he routinely blocked those gyro cutters by Kopps was vital to the pitcher’s and the Razorbacks’ success this season. Opitz’ batting average at .257 wasn’t that impressive, but he always found ways to get on base and be an effective offensive player for his teammates.
I know I’ve left some key performers out, but this Razorback team — every member — should and will be remembered fondly by Hog fans, once we’ve bounced back from the season ending more abruptly than we anticipated.
Certainly the big losses sting and aren’t forgotten, but as a longtime Hog fan and observer, I can’t take anything but pride out of the way this Razorback baseball team competed all season long.