The looks on the faces of his Arkansas players a few nights ago reminded Dave Van Horn of something he had seen more than a decade ago at Nebraska.
The Razorbacks were celebrating a 1-0, 10-inning victory over Baylor that put them in the College World Series. It would be Van Horn's fifth trip to Omaha but a first for many of his players.
“Going to Omaha never gets old,” Van Horn said. “When we did at Nebraska in 2001, it was unbelievable. In 2002, it was great, just as it was at 2004 and 2009 at a different school. The feeling never changes.
“When you get that last out and know you're going to the College World Series, you're just ecstatic. All the pressure you've felt all year long is gone. There is a relief, and I don't care if it's your fifth time or your first. The feeling is just as powerful.”
Especially for a team that at times during the season had to wonder if it was Omaha-worthy. Arkansas' 2012 season is filled with peaks and valleys — the 44-20 record the Razorbacks take into Saturday's CWS opener against Kent State is proof of that.
In fact, Arkansas didn't exactly roll into the NCAA tournament on a full head of steam. The Razorbacks were bounced out of last month's Southeastern Conference tournament, scoring just one run in their two losses. That left Arkansas with an 8-6 record in May.
“We had played at Tennessee right before the tournament and had been on the road for about 10 days straight,” Van Horn said. “We were tired but when we got back home, we worked extremely hard in practice. We got our minds right and got healthy.
“The thing was, we never hit a point where I counted us out. Then, when we won that 1-0 game down at Rice, I really felt we had a good chance of winning the regional and moving on.”
The victory over the top-seeded Owls came in the second game of the regional. The Razorbacks posted a 5-1 win over Sam Houston State in the regional championship game to earn a spot in the super regional against Baylor, the national No. 4 seed.
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The Bears posted a win in the opening game of the best-of-three series and were three outs away from claiming their own trip to Omaha on Sunday. A botched play on a potential game-ending double-play grounder was followed by Baylor pitchers hitting two Arkansas batters with the bases loaded.
That turned what could have been a season-ending 4-3 loss to a series-evening 5-4 win.
“That was amazing,” Van Horn said.
The next night, Arkansas went eight innings before it got its leadoff runner on base. The Razorbacks used clutch defensive plays and big pitches to turn back several early scoring threats by the Bears.
In the 10th, Jake Wise's seeing-eye single brought home a run for Arkansas. Baylor threatend in the bottom half of the inning, but Colby Suggs struck out the game's final batter. Any frustrations the Razorbacks had experienced during a long season disappeared beneath a dogpile in Waco.
“We just kept grinding,” Van Horn said.
In many ways, that word best describes Van Horn's 10th Arkansas team. This is not Van Horn's most talented lineup. The Razorbacks rank 160th nationally in hitting, 159th in scoring. Defensively, Arkansas is solid but hardly spectacular.
Where the Razorbacks have excelled is on the mound. Arkansas' 2.90 ERA ranks seventh nationally. The Razorbacks are fifth in fewest hits allowed per nine innings (7.66).
Arkansas has 10 pitchers who have logged significant innings with ERAs under 3.18. DJ Baxendale and Ryne Stanek are a potent 1-2 punch on the front end, and Van Horn can call on a number of power arms in the bullpen to keep games close before sending Barrett Astin (10 saves, 2.15 ERA) in to seal the deal.
“This team has the deepest pitching staff I've ever had,” Van Horn said. “We made a decision a few years back to get more pitching and it's paid off for us. It's probably hurt us a little on the offensive end.
“But we had been watching the trends and, with the new bats, we just felt pitching was where it's at. We've had some good ones here before, but now we just have more of them, including some big-time velocity guys that throw strikes.”
The Razorbacks are one of several teams in this year's CWS field with a pitch-and-play-defense approach that should play well in spacious TD Ameritrade Park.
“In the past, we had a bunch of bangers,” Van Horn said. “That could work at Rosenblatt, especially when it got warm and you had the wind blowing out of the south. But this is a different park.
“We're not going to overwhelm you with our offense. We still have a game or two where we can get after it pretty good, but we're more about getting a lead, building on it and letting our pitchers do the rest.”
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