FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas is set to open College World Series play against Stanford at 1 p.m. Saturday and televised on ESPN.
On Thursday, Dave Van Horn and three key players for the Razorbacks met with the media. Connor Noland will be Saturday’s starter for the Razorbacks. Noland is 7-5 on the season with an ERA of 3.86. His last two starts have been outstanding. He started against Grand Canyon in the Stillwater Regional and North Carolina in the Chapel Hill Super Regional.
“Connor will definitely be our starter on Saturday,” Van Horn said.
Noland was asked if it was a benefit to Arkansas that they have faced Stanford once this season?
“I think so,” Noland said. “We obviously played them earlier in the year. Hagen Smith threw that game, so I got to sit back and watch, take everything in. Got a sneak peek at their lineup, have a good idea what they do.”
Noland went on to name the things that Stanford does with their powerful offense.
“They swing it well,” Noland said. “I think everybody has seen that the past couple of weeks. They’re a good team, solid from 1 to 9, and well-rounded throughout that lineup. It’s a good challenge for us.”
Alex Williams is 8-3 with an ERA of 2.88. He will start for Stanford opposite Noland. Williams made a statement that Stanford’s hitters are better than Arkansas’. Noland was asked to respond to that.
“You can say whatever you want,” Noland said. “I think everybody should be confident in themselves. I’ve got the same confidence with my guys, the batters and our fielders. So I guess we’ll find out.”
Williams’ response when asked about the Arkansas lineup probably will rub many at Arkansas the wrong way.
“They’re a good team,” Williams said. “I was on the book, I was doing the charting for Quinn Mathews when he pitched against them back in Texas, was that second week of the year.
“I know they’re going to be a good team, a good offense. I look forward to facing them. I think it’s going to be a good game. I take our offense over theirs any days. I think we’ve got them. I respect them. They’re a good team. I look forward to playing them.”
Catcher Michael Turner, who was named the Stillwater Regional MVP, talked about the approach Arkansas’ hitters will take against Williams and Stanford’s other pitchers including a talented bullpen.
“One pitch at a time,” Turner said. “We know the challenge we’ve got into and we’re just excited to be here. Coach has been saying it for a while now – it’s about us. We’re focused on us and putting together a strong game.”
Reporters asked the players what had they learned about the team this season.
“I think I knew we were tough the whole year,” Noland said. “Just sometimes you have to wait for an opportunity to prove it. And I think that the last two weeks have given us an opportunity to prove it. And I’ve seen it here and there again. But it’s really staying true this past two weeks, three weeks. Team’s really come together. And we’re playing a brand of baseball that Arkansas should be proud of.”
Turner seconded Noland’s statement and added to it as well.
“Completely agree,” Turner said. “We were saying all fall how good we thought this team was going to be. And I think we’re starting to live up to that expectation a little bit. I think these past two or three weeks have been a good clicking time period for the team. I feel we’re clicking on all cylinders. It’s a good time to do that.”
Arkansas finished second in the SEC West one game behind Texas A&M. The Hogs, Aggies, Ole Miss and Auburn make up one half of the field in Omaha. Third baseman Cayden Wallace talked about the SEC preparing the Hogs for this setting.
“Coming in last year out of high school, I knew the SEC was a special league, and it kind of proved itself the past two years – showing that there’s four teams in it this year and we’ve played them, obviously,” Wallace said. “We’re excited to go out there, bring our best every day and focus on one game at a time.”
Wallace and Noland were members of last year’s team that was ranked No. 1 most of the season only to come up short of getting to Omaha. The Hogs lost the Fayetteville Super Regional to North Carolina State.
“Last year, we obviously got to watch North Carolina State dog pile on our field,” Wallace said. “And you take it to heart. And you’ve got to forget it at some point.
“We’ve got to get back out there like we did this year and worked. And we knew we wanted to be the one dog piling this year. Not just to get here, we wanted to be set ourselves up for the chance to win it. And that’s what we’re focused on now and that’s how we use that motivation.”
Van Horn talked about some adjustments and changes the Hogs have made since losing six of the final eight games before NCAA play. The Razorbacks are 5-1 since losing two straight in the SEC Tournament.
“We needed to make some adjustments,” Van Horn said. “We struggled down the stretch on the mound a little bit. We were giving up big innings and big innings usually happen when you walk people, pitch behind in the count. That’s what happened a lot. And so we changed up a little bit where we didn’t announce our three starters. We’d give you Friday’s starter and then just see who we had left. We told the pitching staff that all hands on deck. Don’t think you’re starting tomorrow, you may be pitching today.
“And it seemed to work a little bit. And then we’ve had a few guys step up for us. And position player-wise, it’s pretty much the same guys, but it really changed the lineup going into the Regional. Just took Wallace out of the leadoff spot, put him in the 3 hole. Put (Braydon) Webb, took him out of the middle lineup and put him up top. And a few other adjustments there. And it worked.”
Van Horn declined to name any starting pitchers beyond Noland. One would assume Will McEntire, Jaxon Wiggins and Zack Morris could be starters at some point. Hagen Smith also is a possibility to start if he isn’t in the closer role. Van Horn is very familiar with Stanford’s Williams.
“Williams, he can just pitch. He’s not going to blow you away, but he’s got really good off-speed stuff, really good change-up,” Van Horn said. “I’m sure his team loves playing behind him. Fills up the zone. You win nine games for a guy against one loss, that’s a lot of decisions. They play in a great league with great players. A lot of times you don’t have that many decisions. You come out of the game, it’s tied or whatever the case may be.
“As far as Connor, I mean, I just feel like that he got a little tired. He got a second wind. And hopefully the wind keeps blowing. The guy’s pitching good. But if he gives us five, that’s great. Seven. If he gives us three, we’ll go to the pen. But we wouldn’t be here without Connor and the year he’s had.”
The loser of Saturday’s game will play in an elimination game at 1 p.m. Monday. The winner will play at 6 p.m. Monday. Both games will be on ESPN. Auburn and Ole Miss are the other two teams on the side of the bracket with Arkansas and Stanford. Texas, Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Oklahoma make up the other half of the field.
Arkansas (43-19) and Stanford (47-16) played Feb. 27 in the Round Rock Classic with the Cardinal taking a 5-0 win.