Arkansas Brings Back Valuable Experience

FAYETTEVILLE — Emotions tugged at outfielder Chase Leavitt during the eighth inning of Arkansas' season-ending College World Series loss to LSU last Friday.

Between each pitch, Leavitt scanned the atmosphere in Rosenblatt Stadium, sensing his college career was nearly finished. Finally, the outgoing senior looked around the field.

He recalls smiling, despite the sadness.

"I remember I was in left field looking out there and saying, ‘Wow, everyone out here's coming back except for me and (right fielder Andrew) Darr,'" Leavitt said. "These guys all got some great experience here in the (College) World Series.

"They've got so much talent, and they're all great guys. No reason they shouldn't be back next year."

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn sounded just as optimistic Wednesday morning when he met with the media for about 30 minutes.

As of now, Van Horn will lose only seven Razorbacks — including transferring first baseman Jacob House — from this season's 41-24 club. And he seemed enthusiastic about bringing back so many quality players.

After all, as Leavitt alluded, the Razorbacks will return so much CWS experience.

Sophomores-to-be Zack Cox and James McCann should fill main leadership roles, Van Horn said, supported by juniors-to-be Andy Wilkins and Brett Eibner. Plus, competition should be heated at every position, as the goal for next year will be nothing short of revisiting Omaha in June 2010.

"Getting to Omaha gives us a little bit of a jump start for the 2010 season," Van Horn said. "We played so many young guys, especially down the stretch. I've got two or three kids who redshirted who I think could possibly start next season. We've got a couple of kids coming in who could maybe start. The program's in good shape."

Van Horn spent plenty of time Wednesday rehashing the Hogs' run to Omaha. But when the talk shifted to Arkansas' future, Van Horn raved about his returning nucleus.

First off, Van Horn said he expected to lose two of the three junior pitchers who were drafted two weeks ago — but perhaps not all three. Dallas Keuchel and Stephen Richards will likely sign, he said. As for Mike Bolsinger, though, MLB teams really messed up in Van Horn's mind.

Bolsinger slipped to the 33rd round to the Oakland Athletics, and Van Horn said he was "50-50" to come back.

"That kind of floored me," Van Horn said. "I was in Tulsa yesterday recruiting and talked to a lot of scouts, and I didn't even have to bring his name up. They brought it up to me. They had him in the 8th, 9th and 10th round. I don't understand why he didn't go higher.

"He's not going to get the money that he wants. We'd love to have him back."

Van Horn singled out several newcomers who could contribute immediately next season, Seth Gardner and Jonathan Pearlman being redshirted players who could compete for starting positions. Matt Reynolds, a prep standout from Tulsa, Okla., could challenge for the starting shortstop job, Van Horn said.

Gardner was in Van Horn's plans for this season, but he came down with mononucleosis before the season began.

"Seth Gardner's a 6-foot-4 1/2 outfielder who... I just felt like I didn't need to burn a year on him," Van Horn said. "By the time he got strong, we were rolling and (freshman) Collin (Kuhn) was doing pretty well. Jonathan Pearlman's a left-handed hitter who can play first, in the outfield, play third in a pinch. He can really hit."

When asked about specific needs for next season, Van Horn responded, "As always, it's starting pitching." He said he thought Arkansas had "enough position players to compete with anybody," evidenced by the playing time earned this season by freshmen such as Cox, McCann, Kuhn, Bo Bigham, Drew Smyly and Jarrod McKinney.

But he insisted he's hoping to increase the Razorbacks' pitching depth, seeing plenty of candidates who could join Eibner and Smyly in the weekend rotation or pitch in relief.

Seniors-to-be such as Bolsinger, T.J. Forrest and Bryan Bingham should be in the mix, and Van Horn mentioned junior college left-hander Jason Fuqua and right-hander D.J. Baxendale, of Sherwood, as other possibilities.

Regardless, Van Horn knows his returning core will fight to earn Arkansas a second straight trip to Omaha. The Hogs got a taste of the CWS this year, and he senses they want to experience it again. The team, Van Horn said, "seemed really hungry to get back (to Omaha) when we met with them, especially individually."

"They're not just all giddy and happy about making it," Van Horn said. "They're going to get a (College) World Series ring, and they're happy about that. But they want to go back. I told them that there's going to be high expectations for our team in the preseason next year, and we need to be able to handle it.

"They're looking forward to that."



WEB WATCH

Click to the Hog Blog for more information from Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn's news conference Wednesday that wrapped up the 2009 season.

— www.nwahogblog.com.

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