Nothing has come easy for this Arkansas team, battling back from heavy losses to the draft last summer and a series of injuries during the season. So head coach Dave Van Horn was expecting a challenge when the field for the 2014 NCAA tournament was announced Monday.
Arkansas (38-23, No. 2 seed) faces Liberty (41-16, No. 3 seed) at 6 p.m. Friday night in Charlottesville, Va. Virginia (44-13, No. 1 seed) meets Bucknell (30-19-1, No. 6) at 1 p.m.
But as far as where the Hogs would be sent as a probably No. 2 seed in a regional, Virginia wasn't where he thought of first.
"I knew they might send an SEC team to Virginia," Van Horn said. "They sent a team from our area, Oklahoma, there a couple of years ago. But it was a little bit of a surprise. I was thinking we might go to TCU or Oklahoma State, or maybe Louisiana-Lafayette."
Van Horn said he remembers that Virginia was No. 1 in several preseason polls and is solid both on the mound and with what was thought to be an improved offense. As for Liberty, Van Horn said he's paid attention to them all year, knowing they are coached by highly respected Jim Toman.
"Virginia is a very complete team," Van Horn said. "Liberty, I've followed through out the season. I know Jim Toman and think a lot of him. He was Ray Tanner's long-time pitching coach. It's a very good match-up."
Toman coached for Tanner 18 seasons, the final 11 at South Carolina. He began with Tanner in 1990 at North Carolina State. He's been at Liberty the last seven seasons, with the Flames winning at least 35 games in all but one season. Toman was recruiting coordinator at Carolina during the time that the squads that won the 2010 and 2011 national titles were signed.
Last year, as the No. 3 seed in the South Carolina regional, the Flames beat Clemson twice before bowing out to South Carolina in the title game. It was Liberty's first ever regional final.
But in the end, Van Horn was just glad to be in the tournament, no matter the destination, and making its 13th straight NCAA trip. After all, the Hogs might have been on the outside of the field just a few weeks ago after losing two out of three to Auburn at home. Losing the second game of a doubleheader on Saturday night put the Hogs at 28-18, 10-11 in the SEC.
"It was a big moment for us, about three weeks ago," Van Horn said. "We lost that second game of the doubleheader against Auburn and I knew we had a long way to go. It gave me a chance to talk to the team about what we needed to do.
"Maybe it was a good thing. It might have woke us up. We got it done. We knocked off 10 wins since then."
Starting with a victory at No. 10 Ole Miss on Sunday in Oxford the next weekend, the Hogs have won nine of 12 games, including three wins in the SEC tournament. They have beaten Ole Miss three times in that span. They did all of that despite losing starting pitcher Jalen Beeks to a sore elbow and hot designated hitter Blake Baxendale to a hamstring injury.
Freshman Clark Eagan stepped into the leadoff spot, filling the DH hole. And, the Hogs have gotten great relief pitching from Jacob Stone and Zach Jackson to take up some of the slack from Beeks often going deep in games.
Second baseman Brian Anderson said the mindset changed after that Van Horn talk in the wake of the Auburn series loss.
"Coach told us it was the start of a new season," Anderson said. "That we had maybe 20 games left and we had to start playing them one at a time. That set the tone for what we've done. As an offense, we didn't look back and we didn't look forward. We only looked at that day, that practice or that game. We tried to stay in the moment.
"I think that mindset helped us get to where we are. It helped in those comebacks."
The Hogs ended the regular season with a 7-5, 11-inning victory over Missouri after trailing 4-1 going to the ninth. They rallied from a 6-0 deficit against Ole Miss in the SEC tournament, winning 8-7.
"We found out with those two games that we are really never out of a game," Anderson said. "We were down 6-0 and the other team still had the starter out there. But we stayed in it and came back.
"I think the key was the energy in our dugout, from even some guys who weren't in the game. The guys in the dugout kept us up."
Obviously, the Hogs were "up" on Monday.
"It's exciting to know where we are going," Anderson said. "Virginia has been good all year. We know they are the No. 3 overall seed and very good. But we are looking forward to playing there.
"We are pretty confident and excited. We played well in the (SEC) tournament. We just ran out of gas on Saturday. We've got momentum and we are confident and we are going to get some rest this week and look forward to Friday."
Now they just hope to get some off the injury list. Nothing is for certain on Beeks.
"We should know something tomorrow," Van Horn said. "What we are looking at, it would be coming out of the bullpen."
Van Horn said Beeks has not thrown on the mound since the Ole Miss series in Oxford.
"It would be huge to get him back," Van Horn said. "It would probably be maybe pitching in the seventh, eighth or ninth innings. Maybe if it's a great situation, at some point we could build him back up to a start."
Van Horn said he's thrown a few times.
"It's just trying to get a feel for how he is," Van Horn said. "He throws and then we see if he feels the same, is there pain? Then, you see how he feels the next time. He's doing OK. He's not 100 percent."
Van Horn said Andrew Benintendi and Bobby Wernes, both held out of the SEC tourney loss Saturday, were fine and would be ready for the regional. Catcher Jake Wise is improving after sitting out the entire tournament with an injury to the top of his throwing hand.
"Jake is feeling a lot better," Van Horn said. "It's the top of his pitching hand. a hair line fracture maybe."
Baxendale is still iffy for the regional. And, if he does get the OK to play, Van Horn might not start him. He likes his current lineup with Eagan at DH too much to make a change.
"He hasn't done anything," Van Horn said of Baxendale. "He couldn't push off to throw. He couldn't push off to swing. He hasn't done anything (in the batting cage) with us. He's hit off a tee and that's it. I don't know. It's been 22 to 23 days. Maybe he could pinch hit. But I won't change this lineup. I'm putting Clark Eagan at the top of the order."
Van Horn said he's comfortable with this lineup. He's settled on Eagan, Joe Serrano, Benintendi, Anderson, Eric Fisher, Tyler Spoon, Wernes, Alex Gosser and Michael Bernal. He likes having his lefties (Eagan, Benintendi, Fisher and Gosser) spaced evenly.
"Eagan and Benintendi have done well against lefties," Van Horn said. "This lineup has a good feel to it. Sometimes you have to think about filling out the lineup. Right now, I don't. We have a good mix. We put pressure on the opposing coach. He might not want to make a change because it's right-left-right-left-right.
"We've put up more big innings in the last two weeks. It's been more crooked numbers, as they say. We hadn't had much of that before.
"Eagan is confident. He was in and out of the lineup earlier, more of a developmental guy. But now, he's gotten a feel. He knows he's going to be there."
Anderson likes the looks of the freshman.
"It seems like lately, every time I come to the plate, he's on base," Anderson said. "I started noticing that at Missouri. He's started to drive the ball into the gaps."
Hogs Confident Headed to Regional
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