FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – The 2007 Arkansas baseball team took the field for this first time this fall on Tuesday afternoon as Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn welcomed back 16 returning lettermen and 23 newcomers for the start of fall practice.
The Razorbacks are slated for roughly 24 practices this fall that will run through late September and into the first week of October. Dates for the 2006 Fall World Series have not be set and will be determined in the coming weeks as fall practice continues. Practice times throughout the fall are tentatively scheduled for 2:30 p.m. at Baum Stadium.
Below is a preview of the 2006-07 Arkansas baseball team entering fall practice.
The College World Series is once again on the minds of the 2007 Arkansas baseball team as the road to Omaha begins this fall in Fayetteville with the gathering of an exciting blend of accomplished veteran leadership and an influx of talented newcomers.
Dave Van Horn’s club is coming off a 2006 season that saw the Razorbacks 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, senior slugger Danny Hamblin and senior outfielder Jake Dugger.
Schmidt spent his summer as a starting pitcher for the USA National Team. Fellow junior hurler Shaun Siebert 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 fall ball right 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 23 newcomers that includes 13 freshman, seven junior-college transfers and three transfers from four-year colleges will join 16 returning letterman for the start of fall practice.
“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. 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 should not only be his deepest, but also the most talented since he returned to Fayetteville in 2003. The rotation of Schmidt and Seibert will be joined by 14 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 currently fourth in career strikeouts at Arkansas after posting the second-highest single-season 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 – a dominating one. 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 at 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.”
Travis Hill, a junior college transfer, has the inside track on the closing duties after an outstanding career at Seminole [Okla.] Junior College. He saved 11 games last season and struck out an average of 1.43 batters per inning to rank seventh in NJCAA baseball in 2006.
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 last year, 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 in a single season 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 for us. 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 and true freshman Dylan Duren.
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.
Casey Coon, a shortstop out of the Community College of Southern Nevada, will provide a stiff challenge. 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.
Whichever player does not win the starting job at shortstop will join Tschepikow in a battle for the starting nod 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.”
There finally appears to be a little relief for Walker behind the plate. Walker has started nearly every game at catcher over the past two years, 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. David Hum is just trying to get completely recovered from Tommy John surgery. We know that he is going to battle to play with that bat. 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. We feel really good about our catching. We have some depth.”
The outfield went from one of the thinnest positions on the team to almost 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. Another transfer is Zac Miller, who came from Lipscomb College in Tennessee. He has played Division I ball for three years, but had an injury and got a redshirt and will have two years of eligibility remaining.”
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.”