When it comes to recruiting, the Arkansas Razorback baseball program is capitalizing on its recent run to College World Series in a big way.
The Razorbacks signed 14 high school seniors during the NCAA's fall signing period. Of those, six are ranked in Perfect Game's top 150 nationally, and Razorback coaches say this could be one of the nation's best classes.
"I definitely feel this could be a top 10 class and it could be better than that if all-but one shows up," Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. "If they all show up it could be a top five.
"It's a little heavy on the pitching and a little thin on the position players, but the position players we got are impact guys that can come in and play right away. That's what we needed; we didn't need to bring in many developmental guys this year."
With the 35-man roster limit, Van Horn and his staff focused on players that can play multiple positions. Twelve of the 14 fit the bill.
"We've really tried to do that the last couple of years with scholarship limitations and roster limitations," Van Horn said. "We have 11.7 scholarships to work with not only with the incoming kids, but the ones already in the program so it really spreads us thin. If you can get a two-way a guy that can really do it – for example, a Bret Eibner – it really helps you.
"Really what you end up getting a lot of times is a guy that is a position player that ends up pitching. It's hard to be a pitcher that can play a position. Guys like Eibner, who can start at pitcher and in the field, are rare.
"Jared Lakind (No. 33 nationally) is a great first baseman. Defensively, he's among the best I've seen. He's left-handed and he hits left-handed and he'll probably be his high school team's number one or two pitcher. He'll definitely be a two-way guy for us."
Arkansas adds a healthy dose of right-handed pitching in the class, as well. Pierce Trumper is a member of the three-time defending Class 5A state champion in Colorado and Bronson Gillam is the reigning Class 2A pitcher of the year in Louisiana.
"I'm really excited about it, to have an opportunity to play with all these guys," said Trumper, who is rated No. 79 nationally by Perfect Game. "Hopefully we'll get four good years out of it and build a solid team.
"I'm looking forward to coming to Fayetteville…It's a once in a lifetime opportunity; you only get once chance to play college baseball."
Perhaps one of the least heralded incoming pitchers is Barrett Astin, who pitched three no-hitters and a 62-pitch perfect game for Class 5A Forrest City last season. While his low ratings from different scouting services would indicate a run-of-the-mill right-hander, his offer list suggests otherwise.
"We were real fortunate to get some guys that were highly-recruited," Van Horn said. "Astin has a tremendous arm and the ball jumps out of his hand easy.
"We had to battle LSU and we had to battle Ole Miss – there were a lot of people coming in the summer when he started playing with more of a traveling team. He consistently hit 88-91, but it's easy for him – it's effortless. Just watching him pitch you can tell that he has a big upside because he's going to get stronger and he's going to focus on one sport. He's going to help right away."
Astin joins Van Buren's Brandon Moore and Springdale Har-Ber two-sport star Houston Pruitt – who also had football scholarship offers from Tulsa and Louisiana-Monroe – as in-state signees.
"Getting those three kids was huge for us. Number one we needed some pitching. Number two they're in-state kids," Van Horn said. "We need to do the best we can to get the best players from our state. Those kids were recruited by a lot of people. Brandon Moore, like Barrett, got a lot of offers in late July, early August and we're just happy that he's always wanted to be a Razorback. He's always came to our camps and he's done a great job of getting himself in shape. He's touching 90 with a tough slider.
"Those are the guys you've got to get. You've got to get the best in your state and go from there."
Going from there included a stop in Indiana, where the Razorbacks landed Justin O'Conner. A stud both in the infield and on the mound, O'Conner is rated No. 9 nationally by Perfect Game.
"It will be interesting to see if he shows up to school; he's a projected first-rounder and at minimum I think he'll be a second-rounder, so it'll be hard to keep him," Van Horn said.
While O'Conner admitted the chances he'll go pro are good, his comments leave Razorback fans a glimmer of hope.
"It is amazing," O'Conner said following a visit to the Razorback football game with South Carolina. "I would love it here. I really look forward to coming to school here.
"I think the Arkansas coaches are great guys and they have been doing great stuff the past couple of years. I believe coming here would be a real good thing and could only make me better."
Even if he decides to go pro, Van Horn said there are benefits from signing a player of that caliber.
"Honestly, I've had the opportunity over the last few years to sign a player like him and have passed on a couple because I thought it was a big waste of time," Van Horn said. "But in Justin's case I didn't feel that was it. Zack Cox we felt like there was a chance (he could go pro) and we ended up with him.
"I know it's helping us in the Midwest with some of those teams that he played on up in Indiana. We're getting a lot of letters from young kids up in Indiana right now and that state has always housed top prospects. I think it helped us get in the door and we already signed another one from the same (summer) team in Nolan Sanburn. There are a couple of kids coming up through that organization that we'll talk to, so I think signing him is really going to help us."
More postseasons like 2009 wouldn't hurt, either. The Razorbacks rolled through six straight wins at one point en route to the College World Series and finished in the top four before a pair of losses to eventual national champion LSU in Omaha.
"I think it threw us over the top on a couple of kids," Van Horn said. "We had a few commitments in the spring, some from kids that were young. Those kids and the ones we were already recruiting watching us go through the playoffs, they see themselves being recruited by one of the top 10 programs in the country and that's where they want to be. For some of those kids that are from out of state that are being recruited by a lot of schools, it helps them almost be able to communicate better with their friends and parents, and their teammates that this is a great place, look what they're doing."
One of those it helped most with was California infielder Dominic Ficociello, who Arkansas hitting coach and recruiting coordinator Todd Butler believes has a tremendous upside.
"He's the most underrated player on that list," Butler said. "He was the number seven position player in area code games in California. This guy can really blow up.
"He hits well from both sides and is a very good defender. I felt like getting his bat was big. He's got a chance to be a middle of the order hitter and once he gets his frame going he's got a chance to be real special."
With the letters in, Razorback coaches will get a chance to rest some after a rigorous off-season.
"It has been nonstop since the day we got back from Omaha with team meetings, then individual meetings, then being on the road trying to catch up a little in recruiting as far as in-person because of playing so long," Van Horn said. "That's a great problem, though, We want to have that problem every year."
Name Hometown (School) Position Attributes
Barrett Astin Forrest City, Ark. RHP 6-1, 188
Dominic Ficociello Fullerton (Union), Calif. 3B/SS 6-3, 155
Bronson Gillam Shreveport (Evangel), La. RHP/1B 6-4, 235
Jeff Harvill Shreveport (Evangel), La. LHP 6-4, 186
Jared Lakind Cypress (Cy Woods), Texas LHP/1B 6-2, 200
Brandon Moore Van Buren, Ark. RHP 6-3, 245
Justin O'Conner Muncie (Cowan), Ind. INF/RHP 6-1, 190
Houston Pruitt Springdale (Har-Ber), Ark. RHP/OF 6-0, 185
Jacob Rice Tulsa (Union), Okla. SS/OF 6-4, 190
Nolan Sanburn Kokomo, Ind. C/RHP 6-1, 170
Ryne Stanek Overland Park (Blue Valley), Kan. RHP 6-4, 190
Colby Suggs Sulphur Springs, Texas RHP/1B 6-0, 215
Pierce Trumper Fort Collins (Rocky Mountain), Colo. RHP/INF 6-1, 185
Jake Wise Houston (Cypress Falls), Texas C/RHP 6-1, 190
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