It’s said a lot— so much so that it’s become a cliche— consistency is key. It’s appropriate then that ten years ago, the Hogs were gearing up for Omaha for the second time under Dave Van Horn. Here we are ten years later, coming off of a trip to Omaha last year, and seemingly getting prepared for another run at it. Ten years is a long time, and is an incredibly long time for a coach to be around, no matter what sport. It’s a testament to Dave Van Horn’s legacy then, that over the last decade, the expectations have not changed: Arkansas is capable of competing at a national championship level, and Dave Van Horn can take us there.
But as similar as things are, things were also vastly different ten years ago. Ten years ago, we had only been brutally bounced from Omaha in 2004. Before that a drought stretched all the way back to 1989. Omaha felt like a fluke. This was relatively uncharted territory, to go in with expectations. So let’s take a look back at that 2009 team, and see if the journey to Omaha in 2019 can be achieved following a similar path as the one set in 2009.
2009 seemed like it had the makings of a special year from the get-go. The 2008 team had posted a 34-24 record, finished first in the SEC West, and had qualified for a trip to the NCAA Regional Tournament. However, a long trip to Palo Alto, California saw the Diamond Hogs bounced by Pepperdine and Stanford in a cruel one-two punch. Hopes were high though, as this seemed to be a very talented team. The only damper came from the fact that Arkansas would face Baseball.com’s proclaimed “Hardest Schedule,” reaching the only number one you don’t want to have. Earning number 22 in the polls, and being picked to finish fourth in the SEC West, the season began.
The season started off in February with a series against Washington State, which was ultimately cut short due to cold weather. Remember cold in February? That series resulted in an Arkansas sweep, as the Hogs kicked off a hot start, jumping to 9-3 before conference play started. Conference play started with a bang, as the team swept number 17 Florida, and unranked Auburn on the road. Several wins later, and a 22-6 team geared up to face number 1 Arizona State in two games at Baum. The fans showed up (in a Baum Stadium record number for game two— 11,434!), and so did the players, as they beat the Sun Devils 7-3 and then 8-7, sending the Diamond Hogs to 24-6 overall. The team stumbled at the end of the season though, dropping series to number 1 Georgia, number 4 LSU, number 21 Alabama, and number 9 Ole Miss (my God the SEC was a bloodbath that year). The team finished 32-20 with a 14-15 record in conference play. It was SEC Tournament time.
The SEC Tournament had little fanfare for the Razorbacks, as they beat number 9 Florida, lost to number 24 Georgia, beat number 9 Florida again, but ultimately were routed by unranked Vanderbilt 11-1. The performance resulted in a mercy ruling, but the regular season performance was enough to earn a 2 seed spot at the NCAA Regional in Norman, Oklahoma.
Things faired better for the Diamond Hogs in the National Tournament, as they beat number 24 Washington State again, and beat number 9 Oklahoma twice. The team was riding high, walking into Norman off of an embarrassing SEC Tournament, and walking out victorious in Oklahoma’s own house. It was time for the Super Regional.
NCAA Super Regional
With an invitation to the Tallahassee Super Regional, the Razorbacks became the ultimate jetsetters, travelling from the wilds of northern California in the 2008 tournament to the wilderness of Tallahassee in 2009. The number 5 Seminoles were not to be taken lightly though. After a first game blowout resulting in a 7-2 final score, the Seminoles and Razorbacks fought in a deathmatch, finally ending with a 9-8 final score. For the first time since 1989, the Hogs had punched their tickets to Omaha.
Unfortunately, the magic ran out in Omaha. After beating a great number 3 Cal State Fullerton team 10-6, the Razorbacks dropped one to number 1 LSU 9-1. Omaha requires two losses for total elimination though, and the team would not fall so easily. Dave Van Horn rallied his men, and led them to a 12 inning marathon win over number 6 Virginia, finishing with a score of 4-3. This set up a marquee rematch against number 1 LSU. It wasn’t to be though, as the Bayou Bengals won 15-4. LSU would go on to defeat Texas and win the College World Series, solidifying that year’s SEC as one of the best conferences in college baseball. Out of the tournament and tied for third with Arizona State, Arkansas fans were heartbroken, but didn’t realize the foundation this season would go on to build.
The MLB Draft saw several Arkansas players taken, as the pitching staff was essentially gutted. Dallas Keuchel, Stephen Richards, and Mike Bolsinger were all drafted, as well as shortstop Scott Lyons, second baseman Ben Tschepikow, and catcher Ryan Cisterna. The team also featured future MLB draftees Zack Cox, Brett Eibner, Drew Smyly, Andy Wilkins, Collin Kuhn, and Jeremy Heatley. It was an immensely talented squad.
Perhaps most importantly, this team carved the path that proved how realistic dreams of Omaha could be for Arkansas fans. The never-say-die philosophy that was essential to rally from a dismal close to the season and a bad SEC Tournament is still in effect today, as there is persistent belief that Arkansas can make it to Omaha. If 2009 was the year that proved Arkansas could go to Omaha though, the years to follow would show that this was no fluke, and that Arkansas should be in Omaha. Hopefully to honor the ten year anniversary of this great team, the 2019 squad can repeat history, with perhaps a different end result.