With Arkansas' championship series berth, Hogs uncover new ground in Omaha

From left: Arkansas' Carson Shaddy and catcher Grant Koch celebrate defeating Florida on Friday, clinching the Razorbacks' first appearance in the CWS championship series since the format began in 2003.

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For all of its baseball success, this is uncharted territory for Arkansas.

The Razorbacks have been regular contenders under coach Dave Van Horn, who took over at the SEC school in 2003 after leaving Nebraska, with 15 NCAA tournament appearances in 16 years. Their home field, Baum Stadium, is among the finest facilities in college baseball.

And there have been some elite players to go through the program that reached Omaha in 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2015. Current major leaguers like Andrew Benintendi, Dallas Keuchel and Drew Smyly all contributed to strong Arkansas teams.

No group of Hogs, though, has won an NCAA title or advanced to the best-of-three finals; that format began in 2003. Only the 1979 team came within a victory of a College World Series crown.

“There’s a lot of former players that have gone through our program over the years that have made it to Omaha but haven’t had an opportunity to play for a championship,” Van Horn said Sunday. “It means a lot to them. It means a lot to our players, obviously.”

Turning points are plentiful when seemingly every weekend in the SEC brings another ranked opponent. But Van Horn and his squad point to a mid-April series at Mississippi State as when they realized what this team was about.

Three losses in 24 hours (the schools played a Saturday doubleheader) could have unraveled what everyone in the dugout thought would be a historic campaign.

Instead, the Razorbacks won 11 of 16 games before the NCAA tournament. They have gone 8-1 since, including a 3-0 showing in Omaha that has allowed them to reset their pitching rotation for the series beginning Monday.

“We bounced right back,” ace Blaine Knight said. “Every time we got punched in the mouth we bounced back, truly a testament to how good mentally this team is and how good we are.”

Added second baseman Carson Shaddy: “I think the older guys showed the younger guys expectations are just opinions and only thing that matters is what we do in the dugout and on the field. I think that’s driven us, and I truly believe that.

“And the talent shows. We’ve got guys in the lineup, the whole lineup one through nine, that can do it. And then the guys on the mound are three studs and our bullpen, as well.”

Staying unbeaten in Omaha has also allowed for some down time after Arkansas was on the road for nearly two straight weeks at the end of May. Van Horn said practices have been shorter, and they didn’t work out at all Saturday.

Coaches have trusted players to stay busy, with many watching CWS games in their hotel or at TD Ameritrade Park. Others went fishing Sunday as they aim to stay relaxed for the last games of their season.

“Whatever keeps you loose, and some of the guys, I see them out walking around,” Van Horn said. “I’ve seen a bunch of the guys at the games. We’ve been fortunate that we had to play three games instead of five or four or whatever it took.

“And so I just think it’s been good for us at this time of the year to be able to just give these guys some time off.”

» You can see Arkansas' scouting report here.

This article originally ran on omaha.com.

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