SEC Tourney Trouble

FAYETTEVILLE -- If recent history repeats itself, Arkansas won't last long in this week's Southeastern Conference Tournament.The Razorbacks are playing in their fifth straight SEC tourney and fourth consecutive under coach Dave Van Horn. But since 2002, they're 3-8 and haven't sniffed a Sunday championship game.

The fourth-seeded Hogs will try to reverse that trend against fifth-seeded Ole Miss at 8 p.m. today in Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala. Left-hander Nick Schmidt starts for Arkansas while right-hander Will Kline is expected to pitch for the Rebels, which won two of three games against the Hogs less than two weeks ago.

Outfielder Jake Dugger, who's made the last two trips to Hoover, gave his explanation about the struggles in the SEC tourney.

"You're always trying to go there and represent yourself well," Dugger said. "But it's a tough tournament, man. It's all the best of the SEC and most of times, that's the best teams in the country."

Van Horn acknowledged the problems. He has averaged less than a win per year (2) in his three trips to the SEC tourney, including two and outs in 2003 and 2005.

In 2004, the Razorbacks lost to Tennessee in the opener before beating Ole Miss and the Vols. They then were sent packing after a 3-2 loss against South Carolina.

"I don't think that we've had the greatest of luck, but yeah, we haven't been great there," Van Horn said. "But things haven't been real urgent. Last year, we knew we were going to a regional and we knew we weren't going to host one even if we won the tournament. A few years ago (in 2004), we won the league and we knew we were going to host a regional.

"You just want to take care of your team while you're there and you want to win it. It'd be nice to bring back that big'ol trophy that they give out, but you know what, the weekend after (in the NCAA regionals), that's what it's all about."

Close games always highlight the tournament, especially for Arkansas. Six of the Hogs' eight losses in the last four years have been decided by two runs or less, including five by a single run.

Some still haunt Van Horn heading into his fourth appearance in the Hoover Met.

"I remember the one game (in 2004) when (catcher) Brady (Toops) threw the ball away against Ole Miss," Van Horn said. "All he's got to do is just make a little throw, the guy's made a base running mistake, but the guy comes around and scores and the next thing you know, we lost.

"I remember my first year here (2003), Nick Pitts in the top of the ninth against LSU hits one about as hard as you can hit it at about two in the morning in the fog. There was no doubt it was going out of the park and we're going to have the lead but that ball died against the wall. And we're thinking, 'You can't hit it any farther.'

"So we've had some unfortunate losses."

A healthy portion of the reason is the players' approach to the tournament. All eight of the teams have pretty much secured a spot in a regional by virtue of simply making it to Hoover, meaning wins are for pride, if nothing else.

Van Horn said he doesn't downplay the importance of the tournament to his players, but getting them revved up for meaningless games has certainly not been easy.

"We want them to go there and have fun," Van Horn said. "I know the other teams and kind of see their personalities while they're there. They are kind of happy-go-lucky and if we win, we win, and if we don't, we don't.

"That's not our approach, but you can kind of sense that from most of the teams that are there. They are glad to be there, because there's some good teams that aren't going. You've got to respect it. You've got to go there and appreciate it that you have the opportunity to play there."

As Dugger said, nobody likes to lose and there's not a longer bus ride than the return from a wasted trip to Hoover after losing both games.

Van Horn doesn't even want to think about losing twice in a row. However, that could lead to big things in a regional since this year's Hogs have been extremely tough after back-to-back losses. In the past month, they've swept Alabama and Auburn in series after consecutive setbacks.

But if they do go two and out, hopes of hosting a regional in Fayetteville could be in jeopardy.

"I hope that doesn't happen and we have to sit and worry about it," Van Horn said. "I hope we're playing on Sunday. I don't want to come back. What do you want to come back for? Let's play to the last day.

"We don't have anything to do until Friday (when the regionals start)."

Dugger doesn't want a quick exit either. He believes the Razorbacks are playing their best in al aspects -- pitching, offense and defense -- that they've played all season and figures it's important to stay hot.

"We've got to play solid for five days in a row, plain and simple," Dugger said. "We will be playing hard and trying to win. Nobody likes to lose. We've been pretty hot and so has a lot of teams. But if we can stay a little hotter than the teams we're facing, anything can happen. Maybe we can play all week.

"Somebody has to win it."


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