Van Horn Sums Up Regular Season

FAYETTEVILLE -- A bobbled routine grounder, an inning-ending strikeout with runners in scoring position, a fastball left belt-high over the plate. These factors all contributed to close Southeastern Conference losses for Arkansas this season.

The No. 14 Razorbacks finished 18-12 in the league, second in the Western Division, but were a pitch away from several more wins. Out of 30 games, 18 were decided by two runs or less.

Hogs fourth-year coach Dave Van Horn brought that up during a team meeting after last weekend's regular season sweep against Auburn in Baum Stadium.

"If you go 18-12 in this league, that's pretty good," Van Horn said. "I just told them, think back to all the close games you've had where you've let this lead go or let that lead go and next year, let's not let it happen.'

"You've always got to talk about next year a little bit when you have the opportunity."

Another win or two would have given the Razorbacks a higher seed in this week's SEC tourney. They're No. 4 and open with fifth-seeded Ole Miss at 8.p.m. Wednesday in Hoover, Ala.

As Van Horn pointed out, many wins slipped away, such as the evaporated seven-run lead at Florida in the first league series that truly took a total team effort.

But opening SEC play 2-4 after two weekends --their worst start since joining the league in 1992 --Van Horn was happy the Razorbacks finished as highly as they did.

The losses of middle infielders John Henry Marquardt and Ben Tschepikow and prolonged injuries to key players such as center fielder Craig Gentry and second baseman James Ewing made the rebound difficult.

Still, they were one of two teams never swept (Kentucky is the other) in the league, another point Van Horn made during the recent meeting.

"I talked about how we had such a good second half and we battled and hung in there," Van Horn said. "We played so many one-run and two-run games and we won a lot of them and it gave us a chance to kind of grow up as a team.

"We've really bonded in the last month or two to be honest with you. Guys really gutted it up and started playing for each other."

The gut check came during another team meeting on May 3, a day after a 5-4 loss at Oral Roberts. It's what kicked the team into a higher gear, winning seven of their last nine games, including Baum Stadium sweeps of Alabama and Auburn.

This one was supposed to be a quick, prepractice pep talk with pitching coach Dave Jorn, the staff veteran, doing a lot of the talking.

It turned into something much, much more and ate up the first 45 minutes of that Wednesday's workout.

"The whole practice plan was changed," Van Horn said. "We just kind of went out and went through the motions instead of having the original practice that was written up, but it was good.

"Maybe it started out with a couple of points to be made and the next thing you know, it just kind of happened."

Players spoke up, getting things off their chest about the way the team had been performing. There wasn't just one team aspect to blame for the inconsistency as pitching, defense and offense each shared roles in different losses.

"It was good counseling you know," Van Horn said. "Sometimes you need that and to let some of your feeling out in the open and your emotions. You get some of that cleared out and you move on."

Catcher Brian Walker, a third-year college player, led the way as usual. He had contributed behind the plate in every win, but apologized to teammates for not getting done at the plate in some losses.

Like most of the rest of a team that had four freshman in the lineup and only 10 or 11 total position players dressed out at times, Walker was hoping to get it done instead of believing he was going to get it done.

Now, headed into the most crucial time of the season, the entire team, led by Walker's hot hitting, seems to believing it can get it done.

"We can never forget that meeting," Walker said. "Whether we're up or down in the game, just don't forget that feeling we had in that meeting.

"We've kept it and that's why we have so much confidence in ourselves and each other."


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