Razorbacks Ride Roller Coaster Into Regional

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas' season has made John Henry Marquardt kind of woozy and it's not due to the anesthesia from his knee surgery last month.

"It's been a roller coaster ride," said Marquardt, a junior infielder. "We've had a lot of highs during this season, we've had a lot of lows. When we started off, I didn't think there was anything that was ever going to stop us. I thought we might even roll into Omaha (Neb., site of the College World Series) as the team to beat."

Marquardt is the perfect model for Arkansas 2005 season, which continues at noon Friday when the Hogs play Miami (Ohio) in the Austin (Texas) Regional. After taking over as a starter at second base midway through the season, Marquardt quickly settled in and hit his stride both offensively and defensively.

However, just as things appeared to be going well, Marquardt's knee gave out and forced him to miss action while having arthroscopic knee surgery.

Like Marquardt, the Razorbacks' season was turned upside down just when it seemed as if they could do no wrong.

And as he pointed out, it has been dizzying at times.

What A Start
The Razorbacks were 21-4 when the suspensions of seniors Casey Rowlett and Scott Bridges came down on March 29. That included nonconference wins against Minnesota, Illinois-Chicago and Oklahoma State.

"This team has had to go through a lot," said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn. "We start the season and you look at our lineup and it was just as solid as it could be. We had defense. We had speed. We had everything we thought we needed.

"We weren't going to give too many games way."

With Rowlett in center field and Scott Bridges at second base, the defense appeared to be one of the team's biggest strengths. And there was plenty of depth, with at last two players battling for time at each position. The team was averaging around one error per game.

But when those two starters, who were both hitting above .400 and leading the Hogs in most offensive categories, were taken out of the mix, Van Horn had to improvise.

In fact, the third-year coach has tried 25 different lineups (as far as batting order) in the 33 games since Rowlett and Bridges left the team, trying to find the right combination.

Usually, a coach will spend the first month of a season ironing out his lineup before conference play begins.

"It was almost like being back in fall ball again ... Almost like we never had them," Van Horn said. "It really took a lot from us and I've been through so many different lineups since then, just trying to find away to put together a lineup that jelled as far as the batting order.

"We've still won our share of games and there's no doubt that if we hadn't lost those guys, it would have been good for five or six more wins in our league. It would have taken so much more pressure off our pitching, one thing leads to another.

"But when that happened, it's made it feel kind of like two separate seasons."

Pitching Problems
After two losses at Auburn the next weekend after the suspensions, the team somehow pulled it together.

The Razorbacks reeled off nine straight wins and seemed to be over losing their two senior leaders. That is, until the injury bug started hovering around several key players like Marquardt and senior closer Trey Holloway and others.

Holloway had a screw inserted in his left (throwing) elbow and was lost for the season. That, coupled with the loss of Justin White to a preseason injury and freshman T.J. Sinovich to a redshirt, depleted a pitching staff that once appeared deeper than the one which helped lead the Hogs to the CWS a year ago.

"Don't forget Charley Boyce had a miserable start and then really pitched well," Van Horn said. "(Nick) Schmidt has been the most consistent guy all year and we were kind of looking for Sinovich to be that guy. But one time he can throw it down the middle, the next time 10 feet over our head.

"We had him penciled in as a conference starter going in and so that and all the problems we've had with our bullpen has been really disappointing."

There also has been some injuries that have slowed the progressions of other pitchers such as Daryl Maday (shoulder) and Lee Land (hip, ankle).

"It's been tough to find enough (pitchers) to get through an entire weekend sometimes," Van Horn said. "There's been a lot of issues that we've had to battle through and here we are, still going to a regional and still having a chance, so that says a lot about our players and our coaches."

Fighting Through It
The pitching staff hasn't been alone in the nagging injury department.

Hogs sophomore outfielder Jake Dugger hasn't put up the numbers he did a year ago (.236 batting average, 8 homers, 44 RBIs) and it's largely due to the pain of injuries to his knee and wrist, among other things.

Catcher Brian Walker hasn't missed a start in 20 games despite dislocating the thumb on his left (catching) hand about every other game.

Others have had similar bumps and bruises.

"We've all played through something," said senior shortstop Scott Hode, who missed only one game with a broken middle finger on his right (throwing) hand. "My finger still hurt pretty bad, but I just looked at it and I said, 'You know what, it's just a broken finger and I'm not going to let it keep me out.' So that's what I did and tried to play the best I could.

"Once you're out there, you don't even think about it and that's the way we all are."

Hode said he planned on much more for his senior season. After the way the season started, he had his eyes on the ultimate prize.

"I thought we might even go to Omaha and win it all," Hode said. "It's not over yet, and no matter what happens, this has still been a memorable season and the thing I'll remember the most is the guys on this team are my best friends.

"That's the best thing about this team. Nobody is selfish. Nobody is out playing for themselves. Nobody thinks they're above the team. We've just got a bunch a blue-collar guys that are scrappy baseball players. That's why we all love to play together and that's what I'll remember the most about this season."

Building Character
Like Hode said, this team is close. They stayed tight-lipped around the media and most everybody when the suspensions went down and speculation started running rampant.

At the time, the players figured the only people they could fully trust were each other and all the adversity (the word most every player brought up when describing this season) has made this group closer than most that have been through Arkansas in recent years.

"I think we've had enough adversity in one season to fill about five or six years," said outfielder Clint Arnold, who has started more games (46) than any freshman. "It's been a good learning experience. You have to learn and grow from it because you don't have a choice and now we're just looking at it as a new season in a regional and just going out and playing."

Looking at the regionals as a new season is the approach the Razorbacks must take this weekend. Marquardt said all the adversity should give them a distinct advantage.

"That's going to separate us from other teams," Marquardt said. "There's a lot of confident teams out there, but they haven't been through what we've been through.

"And we've stuck together like glue through everything and are better because of it."

Van Horn also hopes the perseverance will pay off.

"It's been a grind, but we've hung in there," Van Horn said. "The coaches have worked hard and not gave up and the players haven't either. For us to make the conference tournament -- and to just make it is never or goal, it's always to win it -- and make it into a regional, it shows how the players have persevered through what all that's gone on.

"We've had our ups and we've had our downs but hopefully, we'll start another upswing this weekend."

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