FAYETTEVILLE — University of Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn doesn’t shy away from the hype.
Back-to-back College World Series appearances fueled by consecutive SEC West co-championships has expectations in overdrive for the No. 5 Razorbacks, who open the season today at 2 p.m. against Eastern Illinois at Baum-Walker Stadium.
“I think expectations are probably at an all-time high around here because of what’s gone on the last couple of years and we’ve got some returners back,” Van Horn said. “People see that you’re supposed to get better and do what you did last year and maybe take a step forward. That’s fine. I think the players are good with that.”
The players are, in fact, good with that.
“I think we have a pretty freaking good team,” junior shortstop Casey Martin said. “At the end of the day, we all know what our goal is.
“Each one of these guys came here for a reason, and we just want to achieve the same goals. That’s win the West Division, win regionals, win supers, then go to the College World Series and win the national championship and come back with a ring.”
The journey back to the CWS in Omaha, Neb., begins on a chilly Valentine’s Day today with a hot pitching matchup.
Arkansas sophomore Connor Noland (3-5, 4.02 ERA in 2019), who is expected to be one of the top right-handers in the SEC, will face Eastern Illinois right-hander Will Klein (1-1, 5.11).
The 6-5 Klein, who was named the top prospect in the Northwoods League last season, was also named the top prospect in the Ohio Valley Conference by D1 baseball.
“He’ll be 95-plus [mph] most of the time,” Van Horn said. “They used him as a closer last year and he had a good summer. He has a lot of velocity, but we’re used to velocity a little bit.”
Eastern Illinois has improved each season under fourth-year coach Jason Anderson to reach 26-30 last year, including 13-18 in the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Panthers lost their two most veteran pitchers, as well as Jimmy Govern (.326, 16 HR, 52 RBI) and Hunter Morris (.286, 12, 53), but they return preseason All-OVC infielder Christian Pena (.381, 4, 42), freshman All-America Grant Emme (.349, 4, 30) and catcher Ryan Knernschield (.335, 35 RBI) and others.
“We’re really excited about the lineup,” Anderson said on the preseason OVC teleconference. “We really feel like we have a lot of talent and a lot of youth. Our sophomore class we feel is very special.”
Anderson is really stoked about his pitching staff, with lefties Trevor Nicholson and Foster Anshutz scheduled to start behind Klein this weekend.
“I really feel like we’ve developed our pitchers well over the last couple of years,” he said. “We’re getting guys drafted pretty consistently and just running out better arms to give us a chance to compete. … Will Klein will be the next guy in line on that and we have some guys behind him.”
Arkansas had an extraordinary offensive season in 2019, ranking 21st nationally in batting average (.298), 10th in slugging (.489), 16th in home runs per game (1.33) and 17th in scoring (7.4). The Razorbacks believe they have a chance to pump up those numbers.
“I feel like every year we have one of the best lineups in the country,” right fielder Heston Kjerstad said. “We have some speed, we have some guys that can hit for power, and hit for average. It’d be a tough lineup to navigate through. I’m glad I wouldn’t ever have to pitch to us.”
Kjerstad (.327, 17 HR, 51 RBI in 2019) and Martin (.286, 15, 57) are preseason All-America picks and returning starters along with catcher Casey Opitz (.243, 3, 33), designated hitter Matt Goodheart (.345, 5, 47), center fielder Christian Franklin (.274, 6, 34), who played left field last season, and third baseman Jacob Nesbit (.255, 3, 42). The other projected starters are senior transfer Cole Austin at first base, junior transfer Braydon Webb in left field, and freshman Robert Moore at second base.
“One through nine is solid,” said Noland, who pitched against the projected starters last week. “They can hit. They can take pitches. They can play the game well.”
Noland edged out fellow sophomore Patrick Wicklander (6-2, 4.32) for the opening day start. The lefty Wicklander is scheduled to start Saturday’s 2 p.m. game, and freshman right-hander Blake Adams is set for Sunday’s 1 p.m. finale.
“I’m a lot more confident this year,” Wicklander said. “Last year was a lot more than just getting my feet wet. This year I feel like it’s … just kind of how to pitch to people, how to attack and go after people overall. You’ll see a year has done a whole lot.”
The Arkansas starters have projected pitch counts of 75-80 this weekend, depending on the strain of their outings.
“They threw like 70 to 75 this past weekend so they could go up five, 10 pitches maybe,” Van Horn said. “We’ll see how it goes, if it’s easy or hard, if it’s an easy 75 or they’re struggling the whole time working out of the stretch, that’s a little stressful.
“So if it’s that way for 50, 60 pitches we’ll probably get them. If they’re cruising along throwing a lot of strikes and getting outs we’ll let them go to that top number.”
The starters will be backed by a deep pen that features veterans like Kevin Kopps (6-3, 3.89), Kole Ramage (7-1, 5.25), Zebulon Vermillion (4-1, 3.63) and Caleb Bolden, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, and newcomers like Peyton Pallette, Mark Adamiak and Zack Morris.
The closer’s role is up for grabs, with Vermilion, Kopps, the freshmen listed above and returners like Jacob Burton (0-0, 4.82) and Elijah Trest (1-1, 7.58) in contention. The role could jump around during the course of the year as pitching coach Matt Hobbs seeks an ace like fireballing lefty Matt Cronin (1-0, 1.86, 12 saves), who saved 26 games the last two years.
“We’re going to start out playing that closing role by committee right now,” Van Horn said. “Vermillion is still coming back from that little hamstring issue. … It could be Kopps, Trest. It depends on the score in the seventh, eighth and ninth and just trying and finish it up. We’ll just see how it goes.”
Fans will note the new centerpiece “Baum-Walker Stadium” sign over the scoreboard and ongoing construction beyond the right-field wall of the baseball facility that is expected to open in 2021.