The most interesting explanation for the transformation of the University of Arkansas baseball team is there may be no explanation.
A roller-coaster ride on the field physically masked a straight, on-track effort from the mental side.
"What's funny is I can't point to any one big moment," said Conway's Chris Curry, the first-base coach for the Omaha-bound Razorbacks. "But this team never really changed. Our character allowed our talent to finally come through."
That's the intangible coaching answer.
The tangible personification is Andrew Darr, whose two-run, walkoff double in the bottom of the ninth Saturday against Florida State that propelled the suddenly revived and pumped Hogs to the College World Series. Darr, a part-time player, entered the game with a .215 average but was four for five with a home run.
"Andrew Darr is representative of the entire team," Curry said. "Here's a senior who began the season as a starter, then lost his job and was not getting to play. But I've never seen him have a bad day. He always comes to practice happy, full of energy and he puts in the work. He's always on the top step of the dugout, cheering, high-fiving his teammates. But all the time he was working in the cage every day to get better. It was noticed.
"In that ninth inning with a man on first, I was in the coaching box, and I saw Zack Cox on the on-deck circle. I thought to myself Cox was gonna hit a walk-off home run. Then, Zack singled, and I saw Andrew in the on-deck circle walking to the plate and I said to myself, 'this is perfect. He's gonna do it. You couldn't ask for a better script than this.'
"He (Darr) got a great look at a curveball from the moment it left the pitcher's hand, and he just jumped on it. I thought it was out, but it didn't matter. It was perfect. I tell the players than my approach to baseball and life is that good things can happen and will happen to you if you keep a positive attitude and keep working. That's what happened to Darr."
The Razorbacks went into the NCAA Regional and Super Regional, wounded and limping after being swept in consecutive series by LSU and Ole Miss and posting a so-so 14-15 SEC record.
"The last of the season, we just ran into two hot ballclubs," Curry said. "LSU and Ole Miss were playing at Super Regional caliber. We were not playing very well at the time and they were. LSU seemed to coast to Omaha and Ole Miss was six outs away. We thought if we could get out of the regular season and in the regional, we had a chance to start over and play like we had earlier in the season."
In that down period, Curry said he saw the character of the Razorback team.
"We were frustrated but we kept coming to work," he said. "Like every good family, we had our moments, but we worked through them and stayed together. And that's the amazing thing about this team. This team never changed from the beginning of the season. During the games we were losing, the players were very businesslike, came to work every day, and did their jobs even though the hits weren't falling and things were not going our way. Then, things started going back our way in the regional. But that's baseball. And all those clich
And the schedule, one of the toughest in the country, both in-conference and nonconference, worked to the Hogs' advantage.
"You look at it and three teams from the SEC West (Arkansas, LSU and Ole Miss) almost all made it to Omaha out of the Super Regionals; two did," Curry said. "Going through the SEC wars taught us patience and prepared us well for the real tough events, particularly on the road. We've already played some of the best teams in the country. We respect who we play but this team is not going to be intimidated."
That goes for Cal State Fullerton, the first-round opponent in Omaha and one of the favorites going in.
"It's a great program, year-in and year-out, but we're not intimidated," Curry said. "And we want to be the best, so we might as well play the best right off."
Speaking by phone from his home in Fayetteville on Monday, Curry, who played at Mississippi State and had a well-traveled minor league career as well as serving as hitting coach for Hendrix and Arkansas Tech, was still on an emotional high.
"I've been exceedingly blessed to be able to play and be a part of a lot of fun games," he said. "Saturday was the most exciting, fun win I've ever been a part of. Now, it was stressful as a coach because you're out there and can't do anything about it. And all those emotional swings during the game and how it ended was just unbelievable."
"It's not who you play but when," said Curry, quoting an old baseball maxim. "We played some good teams when we were hot."
And often, it's how you play when it really counts.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)