State of the Hogs: An Outside Hitter

Clark Eagan was a star in four sports in Appleton, Wis., including as an outside hitter in volleyball. He's just the Arkansas baseball team's leadoff man now.

There is much talk around the Arkansas baseball locker room about other sports. Plenty of players were stars away from baseball and football. Some had scholarship offers in other sports, but knew their professional future centered on baseball.

Andrew Benintendi and Trey Killian enjoyed superb high school careers in basketball. And, then there are some like sophomore Clark Eagan, a decorated four-sport star at Appleton, Wis., North High School.

Eagan's best sport was always baseball, where he played for his father, David, a close friend to former Arkansas baseball star Matt Erickson. But Eagan could make plays in football as an inside receiver on a solid football team (with 12 touchdowns as a senior), knock down threes as a shooting guard in basketball and put away kills as an outside hitter in volleyball.

Volleyball?

“Yeah, I take some ribbing around here about that one,” Eagan said. “I played my senior year. I had hurt my shoulder in football and couldn't play basketball so some friends talked me into playing volleyball. I thought they were going to win the state title and figured that would be fun. I wasn't great, but we did win state. I'm glad I did it.”

Baseball was always going to pay the bills. Eagan hit well over .500 his last two years of high school baseball. Arkansas coaches saw him in summer ball in a Joplin, Mo., tournament. And, it didn't take long to make a decision after visiting Baum Stadium.

“I wanted to go to the SEC,” Eagan said. “I knew about Arkansas. As soon as I saw it here, I knew it was the spot for me.

“My dad is close to Matt Erickson and I had heard nothing but good things about (Arkansas). I had seen Matt play for the (Milwaukee) Brewers. It's kind of cool, his first hit in the big leagues was off Greg Maddux. He named his kid Maddux.”

Of course, there's often been Arkansas ties to Wisconsin, Norm DeBriyn's roots.

“I knew that,” Eagan said. “There's been Collin Kuhn and others. It's worked well for Wisconsin guys here.”

It didn't take long for it to work for Eagan. He did well in spot duty for most of the season and when injuries began to mount late in the SEC campaign, head coach Dave Van Horn turned to Eagan for the Ole Miss series at Oxford.

“We put Eagan in the leadoff spot at Ole Miss and he never came out of the lineup,” Van Horn said. “He got three hits in a game there and then had three hits in a big win at Missouri. We started to click on offense.

“We were pretty good at the end of the year, but we ran into a buzz saw at Virginia. That may have been the toughest regional out there.”

Eagan finished the year at .311, tied for the team lead with Brian Anderson. He had 33 hits and scored 24 runs in just 106 at bats.

At 6-1, he was a rail as a freshman. He weighed just 165 when he got to campus, and played at 170 last year. A lefty batter and right-handed thrower, Eagan is still Van Horn's likely leadoff man as the Hogs begin full scale practices Friday. The Hogs return 17 lettermen from a 40-25 team in Van Horn's 12th season.

The Hogs have been in individual workouts the last three weeks, with four players at a time and total utilization of the new indoor baseball facility just to the west of Baum Stadium.

“I think he's going to play first base for us,” Van Horn said. “I don't know that I've had too many first baseman leadoff, but he can do it.”

Told after last season he could end up at first, Eagan put on some pounds in the last six months. He lifted weights to climb up to 195 and enters the season around 185.

“He's made remarkable progress in all areas and he's much stronger than last year,” said Tony Vitello, UA hitting coach. “He's bigger, but I think it's good weight. I think his speed numbers are very good. He can steal bases with his speed.

“I think he was probably an average SEC runner last year. Now, he's gone to a plus runner. He's worked hard. He's done the speed stuff and I think the strength has helped him. Now we just need to see him translate that speed to the game. I think he can do it.”

Van Horn likes Eagan's ability to field and throw at first, but it's the bat that gets him on the field. The head coach liked it the first time he saw it on the recruiting trail.

“Coach Van Horn told me the first time he saw him that there was this ability for always putting the barrel on the ball,” Vitello said. “It's just a knack for hitting. And, when you watch him, you just know he's a hitter. That's what he is.”

Vitello recognized it in an early drill last winter, against a pitching machine set on high in tight quarters.

“It's a drill that will make you just really look foolish,” Vitello said. “We were talking about this just last week in the office. We put Clark in the cage and it was against true velocity, what you'd see against an SEC closer. The drill can make you very uncomfortable.

“No problem. His presence was very impressive. He was not afraid.”

Eagan has plenty of tools.

“He's got some power, but he has the bunt to the third base side that will make it tough on the defense,” Vitello said. “He can execute the hit and run. He's got a good arm and now he can also run well.”

There is versatility in the field, too.

“I think he can play the outfield, third and first,” Vitello said. “The thing is, we may need to leave him at one and let him get comfortable. It really helped Brian Anderson for us to just put him at second and leave him. He has learned a lot of positions so we could fill a lot of spots with Clark if needed.”

Eagan battled through a knee injury in the fall. A simple scope did the trick and there wasn't a lot of time missed.

“He was out for a few weeks and I thought it make him take some time to get his timing back,” Van Horn said. “It didn't. He jumped right back in there. When you can hit, you can hit.”

Eagan feels great.

“The knee had bugged me all summer,” he said. “I came back early in August to get it checked out. I feel so much better now.”

The time off in the batting cage didn't bother him.

“I think when you've got your swing, you've got your swing,” he said. “I took time off to play all of the other sports and I could come back and hit.”

There were times when he was on the bench last year, but he was ready when his number was called.

“You are not getting at bats, but you can still get in the cage that night,” he said. “You keep hitting. You stay ready.

“When I got in the lineup against Ole Miss and got some hits, then had a good series against Texas A&M, it definitely gave me some confidence.”

Eagan has always been the leadoff man.

“I always liked that,” he said. “I want to set the tone. I played first base and batted first in high school. It's a mental thing. You look forward to it.”

Eagan spent the winter break in Wisconsin, but came back a few days early.

“I just wanted to get back in our new indoor facility,” he said. “You just so look forward to going in that place every day. It's just a place we go to hang out. It's just huge. We've gotten more reps than ever.

“Oh, how I'd like to have had one of those in Wisconsin. It's funny, we'd make the baseball schedule every spring, but you knew about the first three weeks were going to be weathered out. Every year. And, there is nothing like this place back home.”

There were no workouts outside just before the trip back to Fayetteville.

“No, the wind chills for the last week were all minus 30,” Eagan said. “It was a little chilly here last week but I told the guys this was great. Those minus 30 days, you go outside and it feels like needles are driving into your face. I tell them no complaining about anything here.”

There was no thoughts of playing anything but baseball.

“No, I love baseball,” he said. “It's tough to end your career in those other sports. But I was never going to be anything but a baseball player.

“I loved to shoot threes in basketball. I was the sixth man. I'm not in the same league as Benintendi. I've shot basketball with him. He can really put it in the basket.

“Football was fun. We ran a spread and aired it out. So receiver was fun. Awesome. I got quite a few recruiting letters for football, but I figured they were just the system churning them out. You can get a flood of letters and they all look the same. I got some looks from DIII in football, but I never pictured myself doing that.”

The picture is clear about what the Hogs will be this spring.

“We will be a grind it out like team, like Coach Van Horn always coaches,” Eagan said. “We are going to compete. We will be a winning team. We are never going to be out of games and we will fight you.”

And, there will be a sweet swinger at the top of the lineup. Eagan will battle and fight and put the barrel of the bat on the ball.

“My swing?” he said. “Maybe unorthodox a little. Maybe a little loose. But I think it's smooth. I try to load early and find as much barrel as possible.”

It doesn't look exactly the same as high school.

“No, Coach Van Horn helped me with my stance,” he said. “I was too open when I got here. I closed it up. I'd been over striding. Coach Van Horn changed it a little and it was good.”

This should be a better offensive team, with better numbers. Some of that will be due to the flat seamed baseball that the college game has adapted for the 2015 season.

“We are deeper,” Eagan said. “I think we have 15, 16 guys who can play positions. We will be more diverse with guys playing a lot of spots. We are real deep on offense.

“I like the new baseball. I wasn't on the field our first day of batting practice, coming off knee surgery. I was in the dugout watching. Now, the wind was blowing out some, but I'd never seen so many baseballs leave Baum Stadium. The fans should like this.”

They've always liked watching Clark Eagan at the plate.

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