FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas didn’t travel an easy path to the NCAA baseball tournament, navigating its way through plenty of troubles the past four months.
A young pitching staff was trying to establish its identity early in the season. Problems at the plate led to a slew of close losses. Injuries pressed inexperienced players into vital roles, especially when the season was on the line three weeks ago.
But after enjoying late-season success, Arkansas knew it had accomplished enough to be one of the 64 teams selected when the NCAA Tournament was unveiled. Now, pitcher Trey Killian said the Razorbacks will work on sticking around awhile.
“I feel like we’re rolling right now,” Killian said Monday afternoon. “We’re a hot team, and we’re a dangerous team right now.”
Arkansas will get a chance to prove it later this week, traveling to play in the Charlottesville (Va.) Regional. The Razorbacks were selected as the No. 2 seed in the four-team regional, which is being hosted by No. 3 national seed Virginia.
Arkansas (38-23) will begin the double-elimination tournament against No. 3 seed Liberty (41-16) on Friday at 6 p.m., while the Cavaliers (44-13) play No. 4 seed Bucknell (30-19-1) earlier in the day. The regional winner will advance to play the winner of the Columbia (S.C.) Regional in a best-of-three Super Regional next week.
The Razorbacks, who are playing on the road in an NCAA Regional for the fourth straight season, face a difficult draw. Virginia is ranked No. 1 in the NCAA’s Rating Percentage Index, while Liberty is No. 30. Arkansas is No. 33.
But Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said none of that matters because the Razorbacks have shown the past few weeks it is capable of winning and advancing.
“When you get to this time of year, a lot of times it’s do you match up well against that team or who’s healthy, how is your team feeling about themselves,” Van Horn said. “I think the team right now is very confident. The atmosphere on the field, in the dugout, the bus, plane whatever, has been very good the last few weeks, and like I said, it’s a team that’s confident and it feels like we have a chance to win it.”
Arkansas moves into the NCAA Tournament with nine wins in its past 12 games, including a 3-2 week at the SEC Tournament. The Razorbacks played five games in five days during their stay in Hoover, Ala., reaching the semifinal round.
It included two wins against Ole Miss, which was selected as an NCAA Regional host on Monday. The Razorbacks were eliminated in an 11-1 loss to LSU last Saturday, but Arkansas second baseman Brian Anderson said it was an important week.
“We’re playing pretty well,” Anderson said. “We kind of ran out of gas, but overall as a team we’re feeling pretty confident going in. The draw that we got — there are going to be some tough teams in this Regional. But I think overall we are confident and we’ve got some momentum going. … We are looking forward to Friday already.”
The opening-round game will be the first meeting between Arkansas and Liberty, which earned an at-large spot in the field after winning the Big South’s regular season championship. It’s the first time in the 41-year history of the baseball program that the Flames will participate in a regional in back-to-back years.
Van Horn said he’s familiar with Liberty coach Jim Toman, who was a long-time assistant at South Carolina under Ray Tanner. So he expects a challenge.
“I followed them throughout the season, just checking scores, and just noticed they were winning a lot of ballgames,” Van Horn said. “So it will be a very good matchup.”
Virginia is the favorite to advance after being named one of the NCAA Tournament’s eight national seeds Monday. It’s the fourth time the Cavaliers have been named one of the NCAA Tournament’s national seeds and is the second-highest seed in the program’s history, following the No. 1 ranking for the 2011 NCAA Tournament.
Virginia is hosting an NCAA Regional for the fifth straight season.
“They were preseason No. 1 in a lot of polls,” Van Horn said. “They always seem to have a good pitching staff and a good defense. This year, what kicked them so high up in the polls is they were supposed to be very offensive. Hearing all that — and I haven’t seen them — they’re just a very complete type team. … They’re just solid.”
The trip to Charlottesville, Va., is longer than the Razorbacks were hoping for after traveling to Manhattan, Kan., and Houston the previous two seasons. Oklahoma State, Texas Christian, Louisiana-Lafayette and Rice were selected as four of the NCAA’s 16 host sites Sunday, too, giving Arkansas hope for a shorter trip.
But Van Horn said Monday he had a feeling Virginia was going to have a Southeastern Conference school assigned to its regional.
LSU, South Carolina, Florida, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss were selected as regional hosts. Mississippi State (Lafayette Regional), Texas A&M (Houston Regional), Alabama (Tallahassee Regional), Kentucky (Louisville Regional) and Arkansas were among the other five teams to make the 64-team field.
“I feel like people might overlook us sometimes, but we’ve tried not to pay attention to that,” Killian said. “We’re going to worry about ourselves and we’re going to go out there and do our jobs. Going to Virginia, we’re going to try to go over there and take care of business that first game against Liberty and set the tone.”