FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas pitcher Trent Daniel said anyone who plays college baseball dreams of competing at the College World Series.
It’s something he and the Razorbacks managed last year, winding their way through Texas to win an NCAA Regional and Super Regional. They even experienced success once they got to Omaha, too, winning two games before eventually being eliminated.
So Daniel and the rest of the veterans returning to Arkansas for 2013 know what it feels like to get there now. That’s why simply doing it again won’t satisfy them.
"We have been there and got that experience," Daniel said during Arkansas’ media day last week. "Now we want to go win it."
Arkansas’ journey will begin when it opens the 2013 season against Western Illinois at 3 p.m. in Baum Stadium. It’s the first step in a 56-game regular season for a program confident it has the talent, experience and depth to win the program’s first national championship.
They’re not alone in thinking it, either. Three publications have tabbed the Razorbacks as the nation’s top team entering the season. Two others have ranked Arkansas second and third, respectively.
So expectations are soaring at a new level for a program that has experience plenty of success throughout coach Dave Van Horn’s 11-year tenure. Second baseman Dominic Ficociello said it starts inside the Razorbacks’ clubhouse.
"Obviously, anything less than Omaha would be a disappointment," Ficociello said.
But Van Horn said his veteran group also has a good grasp on another fact: Winning a national championship will entail much more than simply taking the field today.
"I think the players that finished up in Omaha last year, they really want to get back," said Van Horn, who has led Arkansas to the CWS in 2004, 2009 and 2012. "But it’s not something we sit around and dwell on. We work towards getting to the end, but we have a long way to go before that opportunity is there."
Patience and perseverance will be key to making the program’s first consecutive trips to Omaha. After all, Van Horn said it’s easy to be ranked No. 1 in preseason polls. But staying at or near the top throughout the long season isn’t.
Arkansas got a good dose of what can happen last season, when it opened 2012 among the nation’s top 10 teams. Hitting slumps and pitching gaffes at various points led to plenty of frustrating days. The Razorbacks only won five of their 10 Southeastern Conference series, after all, before turning it on in postseason play.
It’s an experience Van Horn believes will come in handy now.
"We’re not getting too uptight about it," Van Horn said. "We’re not too excited or giddy about it. We’re just ready to play. … They’re grounded. They know what’s up."
Arkansas’ hopes will rest, once again, on a pitching staff that returns 10 pitchers from the second-best single-season performance in school history with a 2.83 earned run average. Top starter Ryne Stanek and closer Colby Suggs are preseason All-Americans. Daniel, Barrett Astin, Brandon Moore and Randall Fant have loads of experience, too, after pitching in tight games throughout their careers.
Stanek, Astin and Daniel will start against Western Illinois. Newcomers like Trey Killian, Collin Poche and Landon Simpson could determine the overall strength of the group, which leaned on nearly every pitcher on the roster last postseason.
"It has been fun watching people develop. Especially this pitching staff. It’s unbelievable," catcher Jake Wise said. "We lost a few people from last year, but we gained a couple this year. We’ll be just as strong on the mound if not stronger."
Arkansas’ lineup, once again, will feature a team not known for its power. But the Razorbacks believe they’ll be much better at the plate after hitting .271 as a team in 2012 with second baseman Dominic Ficociello (.290), third baseman Brian Anderson (.283) and outfielder Joe Serrano (.333) as its leading returning hitters.
The lineup should be bolstered by first baseman Eric Fisher, who redshirted in 2012, redshirted freshman Tyler Spoon and freshman Willie Schwanke. Van Horn said Thursday all three were penciled into the opening-day lineup and Arkansas’ offseason goal has been finding more consistency throughout the lineup.
"I think hitting home runs is a wasted talk," Arkansas hitting coach Todd Butler said when asked where the power would come from this year. "It’s about doubles. It’s about putting the ball in play. It’s having quality at-bats for the team when the game is on the line. We’ll probably hit 35, 40 home runs and that’s going to be it. …
"But I’m extremely excited. Their attitude and effort and just watching them go to work every day and going to the park every day, it could be an exciting season."
Van Horn feels the same, although he has tried to temper the talk this preseason.
He isn’t asking his team to hide from the expectations. Instead, Van Horn is simply hoping the expectations won’t blind the Razorbacks from doing their jobs on a daily basis starting with the season opener against Western Illinois.
"If we do everything we can every day to get better the wins will take care of themselves," Van Horn said. "Show up every day and bust it, that’s what we ask them to do. As far as saying we have to win this or do that, I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on anybody. I want our guys to control what we can control and care about the program. If they can do that, we’ll be in good shape at the end."
Western Illinois (0-0) at No. 3 Arkansas (0-0)
When: Friday at 3:05 p.m., Saturday at 12:05 p.m., Sunday at 1:05 p.m.
Where: Baum Stadium in Fayetteville
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
Series Record: Arkansas leads 4-0
Last Meeting: Arkansas 8, Western Illinois 7 (10 innings) on 2/27/09
Weekend Starting Pitchers: RHP Ryne Stanek (8-4, 2.82 ERA in 2012); RHP Barrett Astin (3-5, 1.99 ERA); LHP Trent Daniel (2-0, 5.06 ERA)
Out of the Bullpen: RHP Brandon Moore (5-2, 2.43 ERA in 2012); RHP Colby Suggs (7-1, 1.38 ERA); RHP Trey Killian (N/A); LHP Cade Lynch (3-1, 2.11 ERA); RHP Chris Oliver (1-0, 3.86 ERA); RHP Landon Simpson (N/A)
Projected Lineup: LF Matt Vinson (.217, 0 HR in 2012); CF Jacob Morris (.236, 3 HR); RF Tyler Spoon (N/A); 2B Dominic Ficociello (.290, 6 HR); 3B Brian Anderson (.283, 2 HR); 1B Eric Fisher (N/A); DH Willie Schwanke (N/A); C Jake Wise (.244, 2 HR); SS Brett McAfee (N/A)