Swinging in the New Year

While most were watching a ball drop on New Year's Eve, Zack Cox was watching one fly. No, he didn't have to drive to a batting cage at 11:45. He had already practiced once on a day that likely would have been OK to skip altogether. After all, it was the last day of the decade. The coaches would understand.

But Cox' work ethic is different from most players. It would have been the easy thing to take a day off and he isn't one to take the easy way out. So he and his parents loaded up the car and drove across Louisville, Ky., to a place where the ping of the bat would be music to their ears when the clock hit midnight.

"I always look at it as somebody out there is working hard and if you're not working hard then they're going to pass you," Cox said. "My dad has always preached to me that while you're sitting down someone is getting better than you are and I've always tried to look at it that way. If you're not getting better you might be getting worse."

Voted a team captain for the upcoming season, Cox felt he should lead by example. What better way to do that than to go the extra mile? If Arkansas was to be better in 2010, he had to be better. In his mind the only way to do that was to start the year off improving, counting pitches while the rest counted down clocks.

"It was just something I wanted to do," Cox said. "My dad and I were kind of sitting around and I looked at him and said, ‘Hey, you know what we ought to do for the New Year's? We ought to go up to the batting cages that way I can be the first one to hit into the New Year.'

"I wanted to see what my first swing looked like in the New Year. I actually videoed my swing on my phone."

Of course it doesn't hurt to have supportive parents.

"My family has always been involved," Cox said. "I have a dad who played baseball and a mom who loves sports. Sports have always been a big thing and especially baseball because that's always been my first love and my dad's love. Actually when I got home and started working out over the break, after my mom watched me hit she made me get up there and throw her batting practice.

"She's not too bad. She hits line drives."

Ultimately, Cox admitted he liked his swing better. "It looked good," he said. His coaches loved the story.

"I don't know how many guys in the country on New Year's Eve were hitting into the New Year, but our Razorback hitter was doing it," Arkansas hitting coach Todd Butler said. "This guy is a machine. He hits every day and it doesn't make a difference if it's his birthday or Christmas, he's hitting all the time. For a guy to hit on New Year's Eve night when the clock strikes 12, that just gives you an idea of his commitment for the 2010 season."

It's a season that could be Cox' last in Fayetteville. Though just a sophomore, the third baseman is eligible for the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft in June because of when his birthday falls. That isn't his concern, however. Getting the Razorbacks back to the College World Series is the most pressing thing on his mind.

Arkansas made it there last year after sweeping the Norman Regional and the Tallahassee Super Regional, and won two games at Rosenblatt Stadium. But two losses to LSU by a combined 23-6 on college baseball's biggest stage sent Arkansas home to watch its SEC foe claim yet another national crown.

"It was great to make it to Omaha and it was what we wanted. For that year I guess we can accept that," Cox said. "But this year we don't expect anything less than a national championship because that's what we've preaching all fall and that's what we've been working on. Last year was fine. I did not enjoy losing to LSU at all. I expected to win the whole thing and it didn't happen, and I didn't like that one bit. This year I definitely expect a different outcome when we make it to the College World Series."

In order to make it back Cox said he has to improve. That began over the summer when he played in the premier wood bat league in Cape Cod. There he hit .344 and earned team MVP honors in the league all-star game played at Fenway Park in Boston.

"I got to play in a big league park before I even put on a minor league uniform," Cox said. "It was a humbling experience."

As humbling was the honor bestowed on him after the summer when he was named the No. 2 prospect in Cape Cod by Baseball America.

"For a guy to hit .270 to .300 is a great summer," Butler said. "He nearly hit .350.

"And the thing he's improved most is his defense. He's a much better defender and even a better hitter. Going into this season there's some great things this young man can do and whether he goes 4-for-4 or 0-for-4 you know that with his mentality he's looking at the long haul. One play or one at-bat, or one game is not going to affect him."

His mental toughness showed in an injury-plagued 2009 stemming from a strained back suffered early in the year lifting weights. Despite missing 16 starts, Cox still hit 13 home runs, a school-record for freshmen. He was named a Freshman all-American by both Louisville Slugger and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association.

"He's such a tough guy mentally that he never told his coaches or his teammates he was having a tough time getting out of bed in the mornings," Butler said. "Eventually we could see it and started asking questions. He wanted to be in the lineup so bad that he was willing to play injured. I think you saw toward the end of the season when he was healthy the real Zack Cox and what type of performer he would become. Hopefully this year he stays healthy and can play right at 70 games."

That number would almost assuredly put Arkansas back in Omaha. With Cox and junior Team USA member Andy Wilkins manning the 3 and 4 holes in the batting order, it's not too much of a stretch to think the Razorbacks could outscore anyone.

The key will be leadership for Arkansas. A veteran group in the clubhouse came in handy last season when the Hogs limped to the finish line losing eight straight games in conference and splitting four contests at the SEC Tournament in Hoover, Ala.

Arkansas lost five seniors and two juniors off that club and will turn instead to younger players this year. Wilkins, Cox and fellow-sophomore James McCann were voted team captains after fall ball.

"I have a lot of responsibility to uphold," Cox said. "There's really no way to replace those guys because they were such great leaders. We need to step up and know our roles as leaders and know that we have to carry the team now. We have to be the ones to get everybody going and pick us up when the team needs it."

Butler said, "The thing about this team is that the identity is yet to come. What kind of character? Last year's team had a tremendous amount of character and showed that by rebounding at the end of the season. Someone has to step up and fill those shoes and they're going to be very big shoes to fill."

If Dec. 31 was any indication, Cox is on the fast track to filling at least one pair.

"The competition is so stiff in the SEC that everybody knows they've got to be at the top of their game to play and the top of their game to compete," Cox said. "You can't take days off. You're going to lose some but the main thing is you've got to come to play every day."

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