It's Arkansas and Texas. But for one of the rare times in the storied rivalries, the game actually means more than the rivalry.
"It's a big game because it's in the first round of the College World Series," said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn of the Hogs' matchup with No. 1-seeded Texas at 6 p.m. Friday at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb.
Van Horn hasn't heard much talk about the magnitude of playing Texas because of the simple fact Arkansas always wants to defeat Texas.
"I haven't heard that much talk about playing Texas from our players," Van Horn said. "Yes, we know Texas is very good, but our players don't know about the rivalry. They learned a little about what our fans think about Texas last fall when our football team beat Texas. But that's not been our focus."
Van Horn isn't worried about his players expending a lot of emotion in regards to the rivalry. He has cautioned them about trying to do too much in Omaha because of the fanfare at college baseball's shrine.
"This is a big deal to be here and I can tell you from experience that you can get too caught up in the hype," Van Horn said. "You have to be careful. I explained the atmosphere and the way they will be treated.
"You just have to take care of business. The first time we came here when I was at Nebraska, by the time we got to game time, we were pretty tired. There is the opening ceremonies, all the autograph signing. You can do so much that you don't have much left. I've tried to explain that so we don't have that happen this time."
There's plenty to get excited about in facing Texas because of the level of talent on the other side of the field.
"We know our opponent," Van Horn said. "They have great pitching and great athletes. You don't want to be down late to them because they bring in their closer, Huston Street, and he throws strikes and is very tough. You won't get many chances against him."
Texas coach Augie Garrido, making his 11th appearance at the CWS, has much respect for both the Hogs and Van Horn.
"Coach Van Horn is a great recruiter and a great teacher," Garrido said. "They play the game the way it is supposed to be played. He takes his kind of player and then molds them. They pitch aggressively, inside and out in the strike zone. They play with a lot of spirit and heart. Someone told me that we are in a weak bracket. I don't know why you would say that."
In the coaches press conference Thursday, there was much talk about the power of the SEC. There were nine SEC teams invited to post-season play, six made it to the Super Regionals and four made it to the CWS.
Andy Lopez, the Arizona coach and for seven years coach at Florida, has seen good baseball on both coasts. But it was clear he thought it tougher to survive in the SEC.
"You have a down year or two in the SEC, and you are fired," he said. "It's great out West, but what I tell people in trying to describe the difference is that in the SEC it is electric.
"There are good teams out west. You have the Fullertons and the teams like Long Beach who are very good. But, quite candidly, in the SEC you have the wonderful stadiums, the nice crowds and the radio and TV coverage. It's an exciting league and very dangerous, like I said. A bad year or two and you are gone.
"In the SEC, it's pure war for 10 straight weekends. You have two bad weekends and you are out of the race and won't even make the eight-team conference tournament. It's very, very difficult. There is no margin for error."
NOTES AND QUOTES from Omaha:
* South Carolina is the most impresive team here. The Gamecocks were knocking the ball way out of Rosenblatt Stadium and the wind was blowing in. Landon Powell, the USC catcher, hit about 15 way out in right field, some of them as far as 20 rows into the seats. The wind was coming in from left out of the north. It usually blows out from the south. No one hit as many blasts as South Carolina. The Gamecocks are impressive.
* Much of the focus from the press (and mainly because there are more LSU writers here than with any other team) was on the LSU-Miami game. There was a lot of talk about the '96 title game when LSU won it with a homer at the end. Jim Morris, the Miami coach, said he could not talk about that game until Miami won the CWS three years later. He had nightmares of the LSU homer and said he was trapped under the stadium in his nightmares. It was funny stuff, but he said it wasn't funny then.
* Dave Van Horn said he's been treated great, except for one heckler at the start of Thursday's practice. He said some fans got on the heckler pretty hard and that "the guy finally stopped. I thought it was funny." Van Horn said the Nebraska folks he's visited with since his arrival have wished the Hogs well. And, when this writer checked in for media credentials, the young lady in charge said, "We are for Arkansas this week. Everyone is." We'll see, I guess, but that sounded good.
* Arizona coach Andy Lopez, the former Florida coach, said when he walked into the coaches media conference, he looked around and thought he was in Birmingham for the SEC tournament. There were four SEC coaches at the head table. He wasn't clear whether he liked that or not.
* Asked if nine SEC teams were too many to invite to the NCAA tournament, Fullerton's George Horton said, "That's a no-win situation for the Selection Committee. You aren't going to ever settle that argument. The teams that have the biggest beef are probably in the Big 10. They don't get to play early because of the weather and have poor records. It's hard to figure them into this. The argument there is that we should move the season to the summer, but I'm against that."
* South Carolina might be the most talented team at the CWS, but Ray Tanner, the Gamecocks' coach, noted that his team was once 2-5 in the SEC and worried about making the SEC tournament. "We are playing pretty well now," he said. "We had to fight like the dickens to get here."
* Dave Van Horn was asked if he thought he's been unfairly criticized for pitching Charley Boyce, Friday's starter, in back-to-back games with a heavy pitch count in both in the regional against Wichita State. Van Horn shrugged it off, noting other coaches did the same in several other regionals "and I can tell you all of their names." Van Horn said Boyce had little trouble with that task and noted that another starter had gone to the bullpen without their knowledge and begun to throw when Boyce finished the game. He said Boyce "flips it up there and moves it in and out and isn't like a maximum effort guy." About the criticism, Van Horn said, "That's okay. It's part of the job."
Texas coach Augie Garrido (right) shakes hands with Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn at the College World Series press conference on Thursday.
Arkansas shortstop Scott Hode prepares to throw to second base as the Hogs worked on their double play combinations Thursday in practice at Rosenblatt Stadium.
Photo by Tom Ewart
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