The nerves are all calm now within the Arkansas-Monticello baseball team. The Boll Weevils have been picked for their first NCAA Division II regional tournament.
“Definitely a relief, for sure,” fourth-year head coach John Harvey said.
As if that’s not exciting enough for the Weevils, they get a rematch of last Tuesday’s Great American Conference championship defeat against archrival Southern Arkansas.
“To be in the (NCAA) regional for the first time in school history is obviously nice,” senior pitcher Kade Garlington said. “ It makes it a little sweeter when the opponent is Southern Arkansas.”
UAM (36-15) drew the No. 5 seed for the Central Regional, which will be held at Arkansas Tech in Russellville. The Weevils will take on second-seed SAU (38-17) at 3:30 p.m. Thursday in the double-elimination tournament. The Muleriders have won three of five games against the Weevils this year.
The champion from each region will compete in the Division II College World Series, May 24-31 in Cary, N.C.
This is the Weevils’ first NCAA appearance since moving up from the NAIA before the 1996 season. So, their gathering in the Missionary Baptist Student Foundation building on campus to watch Sunday night’s online selection show was no small occasion.
“We’re just grateful to be able to play and make the tournament,” said Garlington, one of three All-GAC first-teamers from UAM. “Anybody can win the championship. It’s just whoever is hot. Hopefully, that will be us.”
UAM has come a long way from being the team that went 0-37 in 2008. With only a history of success in the NAIA to boast — UAM last won a conference championship in 1993, the same year it won an NAIA district tournament — Harvey has turned the Weevils into perennial contenders in the GAC.
The regional berth is just the latest chapter in a history-making season for UAM. Renovations at Weevils Field, including new bleachers and chair-back seats, were completed in time for the season. The Weevils themselves took off to a 12-2 start, featuring wins over then-No. 1 nationally-ranked Minnesota State-Mankato — last year’s national runner-up — and Division I Arkansas State. And their 36 wins this year is a school record.
“This year, we have a little more talent than we did last year,” said senior second baseman Ben Agredano, whose .377 batting average leads the Weevils. “Last year, we had a lot of guys who really wanted it, and it’s the same thing this year. But I think that little extra boost we got has helped us more.”
Classmate and outfielder Ray Johnson — who like Agredano and Garlington are All-GAC first-teamers — had a breakout senior season with eight home runs and a .306 average. He also drove in 36 runs, second only to Agredano’s 48.
“I finally got comfortable and was able to help my team out,” Johnson said. “Not trying to do too much. Staying relaxed and knowing I’m the guy who can help out.”
UAM — currently ranked as high as 17th nationally — sailed into the more-important Central Region poll and reached as high as No. 3 before going down two spots for its regional seeding.
UAM was still No. 3 in the regional poll the day after the GAC final. Arkansas Tech, despite going 1-2 in the GAC tournament, moved up to No. 1, while Mankato slipped from No. 1 to No. 3 and Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association champion Emporia (Kan.) State vaulted from No. 5 to No. 4. Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference champion Augustana (S.D.) remained at No. 6 for the final regional seed.
“You could tell by the way we were ranked it was probably close the entire time,” Harvey said. “When Emporia State went on their run, I think they got some quality wins, and I’m sure that’s why they jumped us.
“It doesn’t matter what seed it is, my reaction is, as long as we’re in, I don’t really care. I think any of the six teams that are in it can win it.”
Controlling emotions in the regional tournament will be key for the Weevils to have success there. Agredano said they put too much pressure on themselves during the GAC tournament in Enid, Okla., where they lost to Harding and SAU.
“In big games, pressure comes, and it’s just how you handle it,” Johnson said. “Tough breaks here and there, but we’ve learned from that and hopefully we can control those emotions a little better because we get a second chance, not like everybody else.”