2006 Experience Positive For Young Hogs

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas' 2005 baseball season ended where it began: deep in the heart of Texas.

It started in the Dallas area with four wins against Dallas Baptist and Texas-Arlington and wrapped up Monday in the NCAA Austin Regional, where the second-seeded Hogs won two games before being beaten twice by top-seeded Texas in the championship.

In between, there were suspensions of two key seniors and countless injuries with different degrees of severity, but that led to a bevy of underclassmen gaining postseason swings and innings.

Through all the ups, downs, twists and turns, the Razorbacks posted a 39-22 record, coming up only three wins shy of a return trip to the College World Series.

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn expects it'll be somewhat easier -- it couldn't have been a much rougher ride -- to get those final three wins next season when the experience coming back mixes with a fresh crop of newcomers.

"Our whole team, for as young as we are, gained a lot of experience," Van Horn said. "I think it's going to help us down the road.

Freshmen Clint Arnold, Brock Bond, Ben Tschepikow, Nick Schmidt, Shaun Seibert and Brian Walker will become household names before their days at Arkansas are done. They all started games in Austin.

Sure, the trip ended with consecutive losses to Texas, but a 9-5 win against Miami (Ohio) in the opener and a 9-2 win against the Longhorns in front of their rowdy Disch-Falk Field fans will be huge confidence builders for the program's future.

"We've had a lot of adversity this year with injuries and suspensions," Van Horn said. "I can remember back not too long ago, we were about 30-7 and the last nine wins, we've had to fight for everyone of them.

"It's been tough, but I'm proud of the team and I'm proud of the young guys because we got better."

Van Horn started five freshmen twice during the regional and four started in the other two games. In addition, sophomores Danny Hamblin and Jake Dugger started every game as did center fielder Craig Gentry.

Pitcher Charley Boyce started twice and was magnificent for 15 innings, adding to the experience returning for 2006.

"Getting out there as a freshman really helps by maybe your sophomore and junior years," Boyce said. "So we know we've got a good foundation coming back."

The biggest downer from the regional is seniors Clay Goodwin and Scott Hode each played their last games for Arkansas, which compiled a 154-96 record since the two arrived as wide-eyed 18-year-olds in 2002.

They, too, gained postseason experience as freshmen when the Hogs won the Wichita (Kan.) Regional and came up a win short of the CWS in the Clemson (S.C.) Super Regional, which concluded legendary coach Norm DeBriyn's 33-year career.

The early experience served as a springboard for their final three seasons, which included Southeastern Conference, regional and super regional titles under Van Horn.

Goodwin and Hode were forced to shoulder leadership duties when senior starters Scott Bridges and Casey Rowlett were suspended on March 29. A season-ending injury to senior closer Trey Holloway, a three-week loss of second baseman John Henry Marquardt (he filled in well for Bridges and returned to play in the postseason) and other minor injuries thinned the lineup even further.

"We did go through a lot of stuff this year and a lot of adversity, but you look at the positive things," Boyce said. "A bunch of young guys got to step in there and play whereas, maybe they didn't get as many opportunities.

"That's a plus to see all those guys come in there like Brock and Tschepikow and Arnold and some of those younger guys to step up and take over for us."

Boyce will be a senior next season if he isn't picked up in today's final rounds of the draft. He redshirted during DeBriyn's final year, but made both postseason trips and picked up tips from then-senior Charlie Isaacson, a leader to both the hitters and pitchers that year.

If he comes back, Boyce will anchor a pitching staff which needs immediate help. It does return three starters from the regional in Schmidt, Seibert and Boyce as well as flame-thrower Josh Smith and left-hander James Gilbert, who each made two appearances this weekend.

The Hogs also have the bases loaded with talented signees although two, pitchers Travis Wood and Kyle Hancock, were drafted in Tuesday's second and third rounds, respectively, and may never make it to campus. Because of the unknown there, the coaching staff hasn't ruled out bringing in possible transfers from other four-year schools or other unsigned prospects out of high school or junior college.

"We're keeping our ears and eyes open for transfers," Van Horn said. "We've heard things, but we really can't do anything right now unless they contact us.

"We're working on it. We've got to improve and there's even a couple of kids that are unsigned right now that are waiting to see what happens in the draft.

"If they don't go high enough, we've got a shot at getting a couple of them."

Regardless, the 2006 Razorbacks should feature added depth at each position as well as improved speed defensively and on the base paths.

"We signed some really good position players," Van Horn said. "But we've really got to shore up that pitching staff because it's been three years straight that we haven't had any depth and it's killing us.

"If we can get that going, we're going to roll and be a top 10 program."

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