Play Ball!

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas baseball fans would prefer to see the season open in Baum Stadium instead of on the road. But for the second straight season, the No. 20 Razorbacks have headed south seeking favorable weather and stiff competition.

"What I like is just to play in some tough environments against some quality teams early so we can get ready for (Southeastern Conference) play," said Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn. "The way conference play has worked out every year since I've been here is that we open at a school out of our area. This year we open at Florida (March 17) and they're as good as anybody in the country."

Arkansas opens with George Mason, which marks its season opener as well, at 2:30 p.m. today at Stanky Field in Mobile, Ala., as part of the Jaguar Invitational. The Hogs also play Oklahoma State at 4:30 p.m. Saturday and host South Alabama at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Next weekend, Arkansas is in a similar format with games against TCU, Stephen F. Austin and Texas-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas.

The Razorbacks had opened on the road once since 1988 before opening with seven games last season in Texas and Louisiana. However, Van Horn doesn't seem too worried with breaking tradition or disappointing a few fans for the betterment of the program.

"Florida has about seven position starters back and a couple who played with Team USA who are pretty talented," Van Horn said. "You don't want to go down there and get bushwhacked at Florida because we're not ready for that competition.

"This way, we get our feet wet on the road and get better."

Van Horn believes it's just as important to find out strengths and weaknesses of a team before conference play, which can only be identified by challenging individuals in pressure situations. So while double-digit blowouts at home may appease some fans, the team will benefit more from winning with a ninth-inning rally against a quality opponent.

"I think a lot of coaches tend to think they're a little better than they are early, kind of fall in love with their own players and then sometimes, you can go out and reality will set in if you haven't played good competition," Van Horn said. "That's one reason we like to go out early and play the best people that we can and have an opportunity to play different schools instead of three-game series (against the same team) right off the bat."

Right-hander Chris Rhoads will make his Arkansas debut today after transferring from Pratt (Kan.) Community College. The North Little Rock native works a fastball between 88-91 mph and has developed a slider in the offseason that he says is his most effective pitch.

George Mason left-hander Eric Gibbons will be making his 24th start in the past two seasons. He sports a fastball, curveball and changeup.

The rest of the weekend rotation features the Razorbacks' top two returners. Left-hander Nick Schmidt, tabbed the SEC's Preseason Pitcher of the Year by, will hook up with Oklahoma State on Saturday, while Charley Boyce, who is second all-time at Arkansas with 27 career wins, is slated to start Sunday against South Alabama.

"It's going to be tough to win them all, but we're going to try," Van Horn said. "More than anything, we're just excited to get out and get it going because early season conference play is going to be tough."

Trips like this should have the Hogs more prepared. Van Horn will start fine tuning the lineup this weekend and the only spots set in stone are center fielder Craig Gentry leading off, second baseman Ben Tschepikow in the two-hole and first baseman Danny Hamblin in the three-hole.

The rest of the projected starters are John Henry Marquardt at shortstop, Blake Parker at third base, Jake Dugger in left field and Clint Arnold in right field. Either Chris Hollensworth or freshman Wayne Hrozek will be in the designated hitter spot.

Van Horn, as always, will juggle the lineup this weekend and throughout games before conference play. There may not be as much juggling as in year's past, though, since fair weather has allowed for plenty of scrimmage time and individual evaluations over the past few weeks.

"We've been blessed with unbelievable weather for this time of year," Van Horn said. "It's like I told our players the other day, 'If we don't get off to a good start or we're not hitting the ball well early or pitching well or fielding well, we have no excuses. We've been able to get outside and get it done and work on things.'

"I think (this) weekend, we should play well."

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