Hogs Focused On Southeastern Conference Opener

FAYETTEVILLE -- OK, now the gloves come off. Now the adrenaline starts overflowing at maximum speed.

And now the Arkansas college baseball team gets a more accurate barometer of what it really has this season.

Is it a pretender or contender? Is this story fiction or non-fiction minus a bestseller list label?

It's time to play the Southeastern Conference schedule.

No more Mr. Nice Guy. No more jaw boxing of -- on paper -- seemingly inferior opponents. So, don't expect anymore 17-2 laughers or any other slobberknockers against directional schools.

This is serious business.

When No. 15 Arkansas opens SEC play at No. 4 South Carolina on Friday, we'll really know if this team is legit, or at least should have a better idea where it measures up.

At least for one weekend.

One would have to be blind not to see the Razorbacks genuinely believe they are for real.

It's in their eyes.

This team was focused and fixed on the task at hand with total tunnel vision Wednesday, only looking straight ahead.

A stroll down memory lane was unacceptable, but amnesia was welcomed.

Forget about it.

Wednesday afternoon, under a canopy of broken clouds and temperatures requiring jackets or windbreakers at the very least, the Razorbacks continued to prepare for the SEC (Serious Education in Combat).

During their last practice in Baum Stadium on Wednesday before leaving for Columbia, S.C., shortly after dawn's early light today, Arkansas players seemed cooler than cucumbers chilling in a produce section.

A lot of smiling. A lot of joking. A lot of serious thinking.

A lot of having fun.

"Playing South Carolina right off the bat is a good test for us," said Razorbacks first baseman/designated hitter Danny Hamblin. "This is what we work for all year, playing in conference. We're trying to go out and win the conference, that's our goal."

Arkansas reached that goal last year, winning the SEC Western Division and sharing the overall conference title with Georgia.

That success led to winning the NCAA Fayetteville Regional and Super Regional, both in Baum Stadium, for the automatic bid -- it was the first in 15 years for this school -- to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

Last year, Arkansas started the SEC schedule on the road at Florida. The Gators won the series 2-1.

Florida won the first game 11-1 last year. Arkansas took the second game 8-2 and Florida took the final game 7-6 in 10 innings.

In that final game, Arkansas rallied for four runs to tie the score at 6-6 in the ninth inning.

Razorbacks coach Dave Van Horn remembered it well.

"It's just about playing well that first weekend," Van Horn said. "Last year, we went to Florida and got bushwhacked, got hammered that Friday night. We played better after that and made a series out of it."

That's what the Razorbacks hope to do again this season.

Immediately.

And these Men of Pig seem to like the challenge.

Oh yeah, but they edit their conversion.

"South Carolina is a great team," said Razorbacks center fielder Casey Rowlett. "If you win the series or sweep the series, you're off to a great start. It will be good for us to play in front of a hostile crowd and see how good we are."

Arkansas senior second sacker Scott Bridges feels the same.

"We'll know more about what we've got by the end of the weekend," Bridges said. "We're excited about getting conference started. It's a lot of fun when you start conference because it means a lot more than the nonconference.

"I think we're ready." So, what's the formula for success?

"If you can hang in there on the road and win at home we're going to be right there in May," Van Horn said. "That's where we want to be.

"That's our goal."

Arkansas brings an 11-game winning streak and 16-1 record into the SEC lid-lifter.

And a lot of confidence.

But are they ready?

"Well, I hope we are," said Razorbacks freshman catcher Brian Walker. "Actually, I think we are. We'll get in a good practice today (Wednesday) and hopefully another one down there on Thursday (today).

"Yeah, I think we'll be ready." Better be because Friday, the gloves come off and the adrenaline starts overflowing at maximum speed.

Play ball!

JERRY L. REED IS A SENIOR SPORTS WRITER FOR THE MORNING NEWS. E-MAIL: JREED@NWAONLINE.NET

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