STILLWATER, Okla.- Dave Van Horn knows how to poise a team for its postseason peak.
10 days ago, the Razorbacks hit a major low point, which came at perhaps the worst possible time: the SEC Tournament. In Hoover, Arkansas’ stock plummeted, as the Hogs followed a series loss at Alabama with a tournament-opening loss to the Crimson Tide. On Friday, the Razorbacks’ stay in Hoover was over, ending abruptly in a 7-5 loss to Florida. It was the first time since 2012 that Arkansas reached the SEC Tournament, but failed to win a game there.
One might think after an uncharacteristic stretch such as that one, with regional play days away, the practice sessions would ramp up, forcing the intensity to increase. The intensity certainly increased for Van Horn’s club — the performance at the Stillwater Regional displayed that — but rather than work his team even harder immediately upon arrival from Hoover, Van Horn gave his players time off.
“I felt that it was common sense to give them a break,” Van Horn said upon arrival in Stillwater on Thursday. “We got back late on Friday and they had an option, a 100 percent option, to come in for an hour or two of lifting the next two days. I was up there both days and saw a hitter or two, some guys were stretching, and there were a couple guys who had to throw a bullpen on Sunday to stay on track, but mentally they knew they didn’t have to be anywhere.”
The time off re-energized the Hogs, who battled Oklahoma State for three straight days, winning in the third and final duel with the Cowboys on Monday night by a score of 7-3. It could not have been more different than the previous two contests, or the Stillwater Regional as a whole.
In a weekend regional that set new NCAA Tournament records for home runs (41) and runs scored (146), Monday’s winner-take-all final was low-scoring by comparison to the 20-12 victory for Arkansas over OSU on Saturday, or the Cowboys 29-15 comeback win over Missouri State to stave off elimination on Sunday afternoon. And more importantly, after the previous two meetings in Stillwater between the Razorbacks and Pokes were decided on late-inning rallies by the victorious team, Arkansas led from wire-to-wire in the decisive duel, taking a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning, holding off a brief charge from OSU in the sixth and seventh.
“Getting that fifth run was huge,” Van Horn said postgame. “Even though we’re up 4-0, they go hit a home run real quick and all of a sudden, that run is gone. We just kept thinking ‘We’ve got to score some more runs, because history has shown here that in the eighth and ninth innings, no lead is safe.’”
Arkansas had learned its lesson by the time Monday night rolled around. They had been forced to. On Saturday, the Hogs entered the seventh inning down 10-5, but unloaded on the OSU pitching staff, scoring 15 runs over the final three innings for a 20-12 result. It was the second-most runs ever scored in an NCAA Tournament contest for Arkansas.
They saw the way a game could shift in their favor on Saturday, but on Sunday, Arkansas was forced to swallow a loss by the same token. OSU led through the first seven innings, but it looked as if Arkansas might replicate its Saturday night comeback, pulling ahead 8-7 in the eighth. They needed just three outs to wrap up a trip to the second weekend of the tournament, but were simply unable to do so.
Fighting elimination in their second game of the day, the Cowboys countered with three runs, snatching away the lead Arkansas briefly held. The Razorbacks found a way, however, tying the score at 10 apiece and pushed it into extra innings. The Hogs’ pitching however, slowly lost its grip, unable to keep OSU at bay as the hosts added four runs in the top of the 10th, forcing yet another meeting between the traditional powers on Monday. Both sides knew that with the way the regional had been trending, gaining a lead late was not half the battle that maintaining a lead was.
The journey of the 2022 Arkansas team mirrors that of the 2015 Razorbacks squad in more ways than one. For one thing, the 2015 team opened the NCAA Tournament in Stillwater,
“It’s all about the team coming together as a team and really fighting for each other. You have to be healthy and have all your weapons so to speak if you’re going into battle. There’s some quality teams here. We’re going to have to be on our game if we want to get out of here.”
The Razorbacks took Van Horn’s words to heart. They played with an almost-carefree, yet equally zoned-in mentality. Nothing was able to break the Razorbacks over the tournament’s first two days, starting in a 7-1 win over Grand Canyon on Friday. Though the first team to be eliminated from Stillwater, GCU actually entered with the best win percentage (.666) of the regional’s four programs, against 2022 NCAA Tournament teams.
“We hadn’t won in a while,” Van Horn said Friday. “It’s been a couple of weeks. It’s a good feeling.”
Arkansas experienced that winning feeling again in the wild finish on Saturday, and of course, in Monday’s critical victory. Often, it is easy to pick out the momentum-changing moments in a game. On Monday, there was no doubt about the point at which the Razorbacks sealed the win. In the eighth inning, the Cowboys were in the position they wanted, trailing 5-3 with the bases loaded and arguably their best hitter as of late, Roc Riggio, at the plate. Riggio entered the game hitting .591 in the regional and was 2-for-4 on the day. This was the moment that OSU could seize the game. But Hagan Smith, pitching for Arkansas, was equally determined to get his team out of the jam unscathed. OSU had pulled out the win on Sunday, but Arkansas was not going to let it happen twice. Smith’s command was exceptional, and with the bases loaded, he struck out Chase Adkison on three straight pitches for the second out, before dueling with Riggio, fanning the freshman as well on a perfectly-placed 2-2 pitch on the upper inside corner of the zone. As Riggio swung hard, he dropped to a knee, while Smith and catcher Michael Turner screamed in excitement.
There was no stopping Arkansas now.
Smith provided the statement finish to a weekend that will be remembered for quite some time, striking out the power-hitting Griffin Doersching looking on a 3-2 pitch that dropped perfectly across the plate for the third, and final, out in Stillwater.
“I had trouble sleeping last night,” Van Horn said. “I talked to Coach Huff last night, and this morning and I said, ‘If it gets down to the last three innings, and it’s tight, and our guys are all tired, Hagan is ready to go.’
“I asked the pitchers to text me last night on the bus. I told them. ‘If you’ve got anything, you tell me what you’ve got.’ Hagan Smith is the first text on my phone. He said, ‘My arm feels awesome. I want the ball in any situation.” That meant something to me.”
Smith certainly backed up that confidence with his performance on Monday night. As a team, Arkansas proved the doubters wrong in Stillwater. The confidence exuded in Thursday’s pre-regional press conference was displayed throughout the weekend.
“What a game,” Van Horn commented after Monday’s victory was wrapped up. “Just two teams battling. We as coaches, at Arkansas, made the comment the other day after playing Oklahoma State on Saturday, that this is one of the best teams we’ve played all year. I feel very fortunate to win the regional. For us to win today, we had to have some things go our way. And we did.”