The College World Series is once again on the minds of the 2007 Arkansas baseball team as the road to Omaha begins with the first pitch of the 2007 season.
The Razorbacks feature an exciting blend of accomplished veteran leadership and an influx of talented newcomers. UA is ranked No. 4 in Collegiate Baseball’s Preseason Top 40 poll and seventh in Baseball America’s preseason rankings.
Dave Van Horn’s club is coming off a 2006 season that saw the Hogs host the third NCAA Regional in school history, finish second in the SEC’s Western Division with an 18-12 record and finish with a 39-21 overall mark.
That squad returns the likes of first-team All-American left-handed pitcher Nick Schmidt, third-team preseason All-American Danny Hamblin and senior outfielder Jake Dugger.
Schmidt spent his summer as a starting pitcher for the USA National Team. Fellow junior hurler Shaun Seibert also returns to help anchor the Hogs’ pitching staff after being named the Cape Cod Baseball League Co-Pitcher of the Year.
The pitching staff is also bolstered by the return of junior catcher Brian Walker, who caught fire at the plate down the stretch in 2006 and is known for his game management and defensive prowess.
"From the start of the season through what we plan on being a trip to Omaha, the 2007 season is going to be exciting," Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn said. "I know the coaching staff is kind of chomping at the bit to get it going. We feel like we have a great nucleus of players. We are going to have depth and competition at every position and the deepest pitching staff since I came to Arkansas."
To compliment the Razorbacks’ core group of returning players the coaching staff brought in one of the most dynamic recruiting classes in school history. A contingent of 24 newcomers that includes 12 freshman, nine junior-college transfers and three transfers from four-year colleges will join 14 returning letterman for the 2007 season.
"This will be the most talented team we have had as far as professional talent and experience coming back in key roles," Van Horn said. "This year I think we have gotten over the hump with kids returning, for example Danny Hamblin turning down ninth-round money and getting Brian Walker back. Plus we were able to hold on to some of our top recruits."
The Razorbacks 2007 schedule features 25 games with 10 teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season. The Hogs play 29 home games beginning on Feb. 16 with a three-game set with Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The remainder of the home non-conference schedule consists of games with Illinois State, Kansas, Oral Roberts, Northern Colorado, Missouri State and Wichita State. The home SEC schedule features Vanderbilt (March 23-25), Mississippi State (April 6-8), Florida (April 13-15), LSU (May 4-6) and Ole Miss (May 17-19).
THE PITCHING STAFF
Pitching coach Dave Jorn’s staff could be his deepest and most talented since he returned to Fayetteville in 2003. The rotation of Schmidt and Seibert will be joined by 12 newcomers and a solid core of returning talent.
"Depth on the mound has probably been the No. 1 problem since I got here," Van Horn said. "We have always had one or two guys that could beat you on the weekend, but maybe didn’t have that true closer or that Sunday starter. We feel like this year we are going to have returning guys and new guys that are battling for one of those four or five starting jobs during the week. We will also have a couple of guys that are experienced coming out of the bullpen that had those roles in junior college."
Schmidt enters his junior season as a top contender for the Golden Spikes Award, the Roger Clemens Award and the Dick Howser Award. He is also a first-team preseason All-American and is currently fourth in career strikeouts at Arkansas after posting the second-highest strikeout total in school history in 2006, fanning 145 batters.
Seibert appears to have matured into the type of pitcher that Hogs’ coaches always believed he would be – dominating. After posting a 4-0 record with a 2.79 ERA for the Razorbacks in 2006, he ventured to the Cape Cod Baseball League where he went 6-0 with a 0.35 ERA in 51.2 innings of work for the Brewster Whitecaps, earning Co-Pitcher of the Year honors.
"The two guys that jump out at you right away are Nick and Shaun," Van Horn said. "Nick has been pitching on the weekends since the first game of his freshman season. Shaun Seibert has been in and out of that rotation, but he finished pretty well for us last season. Then he went out and had a tremendous summer pitching in the Cape Cod League, which is the best league in the country as far as summer ball goes. He actually dominated a little bit. He put up good numbers and did a great job, which I think is really going to boost his confidence.
"With those two guys established, then you back them up with some of these young guys and transfers and that is potential for an outstanding staff."
The remaining spot in the weekend rotation and finding a dominating closer will be two areas of intense competition this fall.
The third starter has been a problem over the past several years, but the Hogs appear to have a wealth of possibilities in 2007. Senior right-hander Chris Rhoads pitched well during the summer and will contend for that spot, but a group of newcomers also has the coaching staff excited.
"Right now we are looking at Duke Welker, a big right-hander out of the state of Washington that played at Seminole [Okla.] Junior College and Jess Todd a junior college All-American from Navarro," Van Horn said. "Then you have a true freshman in lefty Dallas Keuchel that can really pitch. He has a plus changeup, a good curveball and an 87-88 mph fastball with good movement."
Welker posted a 2.31 ERA Seminole [Okla.] State College last season. Todd earned junior college All-America honors after going 11-3 with a 1.39 ERA and 115 strikeouts. Todd is also in the mix to close for the Hogs along with fellow junior college transfer Travis Hill.
Hill has experience in the closer’s role after an outstanding career at Seminole [Okla.] State College. He saved 11 games last season and struck out an average of 1.43 batters per inning to rank seventh in NJCAA baseball.
A host of others are expected to be called on for outs and additional depth in the bullpen, including senior lefty James Gilbert, senior right-hander Brian McLelland, sophomore Michael Wild and a host of freshmen.
The arrival of hitting Coach Todd Butler made an immediate impact in the power department for Arkansas in 2006. The Hogs connected for 64 home runs, the most since setting the school record of 84 in 1998. Leading the way in that category was Hamblin, who hammered 17 home runs, tying him for the fifth-most all-time at Arkansas.
"Getting Danny (Hamblin) back was huge for us," Van Horn said. "Danny is actually getting healthy now where he might be able to play third base. But having his experience and leadership, along with having been through the league for three years, brings a lot to the table."
Hamblin’s return along with Dugger, Walker and Matt Willard gives the Razorbacks a dangerous foursome to build around in 2007. Throw in a healthy Ben Tschepikow, who hit .400 as a freshman in 2005, and the Hogs have plenty of experience returning.
Hamblin will try and win the job at third base with a throwing arm that finally appears ready. If not, then a return to first base is likely for the Rowlett, Texas, native. Behind Hamblin at third base is sophomore Logan Forsythe, who just might be the best defensive third baseman in the SEC.
Willard is the Razorbacks’ returning starter at shortstop after hitting .286 with two home runs and 20 RBI. He is coming off of all-league honors this summer in the Texas Collegiate League after hitting .336 with 12 stolen bases.
True freshman Tim Smalling has impressed the coaching staff at shortstop with his soft hands and accurate throwing arm.
Casey Coon, a middle infielder out of the Community College of Southern Nevada, will provide a stiff challenge at both shortstop and second base. Coon hit .367 in 2006 with 29 stolen bases and a .435 on-base percentage to earn player of the year honors in the wood bat Scenic West Athletic Conference.
Coon and Smalling will also challenge Tschepikow at second base. Tschepikow missed almost all of last year after undergoing back surgery in late March.
There are several options for Van Horn at first base with several talented newcomers ready if Hamblin secures the starting job at third base.
"If Hamblin is not playing third base then he will be at first," Van Horn said. "And then you have Murray Watts, a 6-foot, 7-inch freshman that hits left handed. Then we have Aaron Murphree, a big 6-foot, 5-inch right-handed hitter out of Texas that can also play in the outfield. He runs very well for a big man. Freshman Dylan Duren will also be in the mix at first base.
There finally appears to be a little relief for Walker behind the plate. Walker has started nearly every game at catcher during the past two seasons, and his body has shown the signs at the end of each year with a bevy of injuries. Enter Jeff Nutt, a junior-college transfer with good defensive skills and a tremendous bat.
"Behind the plate you have Brain Walker who has been our catcher for two years and gotten it done," Van Horn said. "Jeff Nutt is an outstanding hitter, who has really improved his defensive skills over the past couple of years in junior college.”
True freshman Chad Pierce has a tremendous arm and is a big kid at 6-foot, 1-inch and 215 pounds. Physically he is ready to go, but he just might have to learn the ropes a little bit.
The outfield went from one of the thinnest positions on the team to loaded with several talented junior-college transfers and three four-year college transfers.
"Our only returning starter in the outfield is Jake Dugger, who wants to play center field, and he might get that job," Van Horn said. "We have a junior-college transfer named Sean Jones coming in and Jerrod Carroll, a redshirt freshman, who really picked it up in the second half of the TCL season."
"We have a couple of transfers and one that jumps out at you is Jacob Julius out of an NAIA school (Spaulding University), who hit over .370 with a wooden bat this summer," Van Horn said. "He is a lefty that can also play first base.
A junior college player that could have a big impact for the Razorbacks is Murphree out of Northeast Texas Junior College. He hit .461 with 19 doubles, 10 triples and eight home runs to go along with 32 stolen bases.
"Then there are some guys that were on the team last year like Wayne Hrozek and Stephen Robison," Van Horn said. "Wayne is known for his bat and Stephen for this defense and base running, so there are definitely some options."