Hosting regional left on Arkansas juniors’ to-do list


FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas first baseman Dominic Ficociello said the juniors on the Razorbacks’ roster have accomplished plenty in their college careers.

They’ve played in NCAA regionals and super regionals. They’ve collected key NCAA Tournament victories. They’ve been to Omaha for the College World Series.

But there’s one thing Ficociello said Arkansas hasn’t done in his time on campus.

“The last thing on the checklist is hosting a regional,” Ficociello said. “That’s what we’re aiming for. That’s something we definitely want to do.”

The Arkansas baseball team will begin its longest road trip of the season with that goal in mind today, traveling to Alabama for a three-game series at Auburn and then onto the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Hoover. The Razorbacks’ success over the next 10-day stretch will likely have a big say in whether Ficociello and his classmates can accomplish their mission of playing a few more home games before most move on to professional baseball.

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn knows his team is confident it can win an NCAA Regional either way after enjoying success on a winding road to the College World Series last season. But he said the Razorbacks would like the reward of being one of the 16 teams announced as NCAA regional host sites on May 26.

“We want to put ourselves in position to host a regional because we know it would be really important to our fans to get the regional here,” Van Horn said. “For us personally and as a team, we just want to get in a regional. We feel like we can win here and we feel like we can win on the road. It would be nice staying home.”

The Razorbacks (34-17, 17-9 in SEC) have crawled back into consideration behind a late-season surge, winning nine of their past 11 games. It included two home wins against Tennessee last weekend, when the Razorbacks rallied from a Friday loss.

It was the seventh time in nine tries Arkansas has won an SEC series this season, which equals its best performance since 1999. But the series success didn’t help the Razorbacks in the NCAA’s latest Ratings Percentage Index, which factors into the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s decisions.

Arkansas fell five spots from No. 39 to No. 44 after going 2-1 against the Vols (No. 98 in the RPI). The Razorbacks — who are third in the SEC standings behind only LSU and Vanderbilt — now rank 10th among conference teams in the RPI.

“I don’t know what happened to our RPI except the teams we played and we beat have not had very good years,” Van Horn said. “I can’t hardly figure it out. You get so much more by winning on the road. We have won on the road. They crush you when you get beat at home. … It does bother me. The RPI isn’t good.”

There’s no debate, though, Arkansas can boost its RPI with wins at Auburn.

The Tigers jumped from No. 50 to No. 28 after grabbing two wins in three games at Florida (No. 23 in the RPI) last weekend. Auburn (31-20, 11-16) started 0-7 in conference play this season, but is coming off two straight series wins.

So senior Matt Vinson said Arkansas can’t get caught looking ahead to Hoover.

“You always want to finish strong in the regular season,” Vinson said. “Winning the (Tennessee) series the way we did, especially after getting beat up on Friday night, that was big. Going down to Auburn and taking care of business down there would be huge. They’re playing really good right now. They’re a good ballclub.”

Vinson was asked about Arkansas’ low RPI on Tuesday and didn’t even want to discuss it, saying he couldn’t even guess the formula. Other teammates felt the same, insisting the only thing they can do is close strong by winning.

“We can’t really control that,” Arkansas closer Colby Suggs said. “We’ve just got to go out and win ballgames, especially on the road. Coach Van Horn has mentioned it a couple of times, but other than that, we really don’t think about it. We focus on winning games.”

Arkansas will have an opportunity to collect a few more wins in Alabama starting Thursday. The Razorbacks will play three games at Auburn, then bus to Hoover where they will have three full days to prepare for the SEC Tournament. Arkansas has a first-round bye after locking up one of the SEC’s top four seeds for the tournament and will open play as either the No. 3 or No. 4 seed on Wednesday.

Ficociello said the Razorbacks, who are 9-2 in SEC road games, are confident they can close strong because of their performance away from home.

So they expect the success to continue at Auburn and in Hoover as Arkansas begins its final push to become one of the NCAA’s 16 regional hosts.

“The big thing is winning (Thursday) and we’ll go from there,” Ficociello said of the Auburn series. “We’ll try to win the series and sweep if we can. But if not, then we go into the SEC Tournament and we’ll try to win a couple ballgames there and put us in a good position to host. That’s all we can do.”