“Omahogs” Looking for Third Straight Trip to College World Series
By Robby Edwards
Photos courtesy of Razorback Communications
Can Arkansas make it to the College World Series three straight years? There are holes to fill, but under head coach Dave Van Horn, fans have learned Omaha is a possibility every year.
The Razorbacks advanced to the national championship series in 2018, finishing second in the country, and despite losing key contributors from that team, reached the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, again last year, dropping a pair of one-run games to finish 46-20.
Eight Hogs from last year’s squad were drafted or signed with Major League Baseball clubs, but Van Horn plugs in new arms and bats every year, and he’s led Arkansas to the CWS three of the last five years and six times overall.
At the plate, leading returnees are junior designated hitter Matt Goodheart, junior first baseman/outfielder Heston Kjerstad, junior shortstop Casey Martin, sophomore centerfielder Christian Franklin and junior catcher Casey Opitz.
Pitching, though, is what could carry this year’s team. Sophomore Connor Noland, sophomore Patrick Wicklander, junior Zebulon Vermillion, senior Kevin Kopps and junior Kole Ramage give Van Horn an arsenal of arms to work with, but who starts and who comes out of the bullpen, and when, is still to be decided.
“We feel really good about our pitching staff, as far as depth,” said Van Horn. “We have really good arms in here, including freshmen, guys we have no problem putting out there to try to win a ballgame. Right now, you’re looking at Connor Noland, Wicklander and probably Kopps, just to name a few.”
Noland earned second-team freshman All-America honors from Perfect Gamelast year after going 3-5 with a 4.02 earned run average over 78 innings. Wicklander was 6-2 with a 4.32 ERA in 15 starts and 22 appearances. Kopps was used in 30 games out of the bullpen and went 6-3 with a 3.89 ERA over 41-plus innings.
“We saw his velocity jump, especially his first few outings of the fall,” said Van Horn of Noland. “Everything is better. His command was really good, his breaking ball, change-upwas good. He kept his velocity. He really fields his position, he’s quick to the plate – he will be a starter for us. I’m looking forward to seeing his development continue going in the right direction.”
Key losses are Isaiah Campbell, now with the Seattle Mariners after going 12-1 with a 2.13 ERA, and Matt Cronin, now with the Washington Nationals after recording 12 saves with a 1.86 ERA.
New names this year are Caden Monke and Caleb Bolden, who missed last year while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
“A lefty who really made a jump is Monke,” said Van Horn. “From 12 months ago, the strike zone was jumping around on him and now he’s commanding it. In practice, [our hitters couldn’t get hits off him] when he didn’t throw strikes and now he’s throwing strikes and we [still aren’t getting many hits off him]. He threw well against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State [in fall exhibition games]. Bolden is now able to throw off-speed pitches, his change-up is really good and he’s shortened his arm stroke. The ball is coming out of his hand good. We feel like he will be ready to roll for us.”
Vermillion pitched in 20 games last year and was 4-1 with a 3.63 ERA. Ramage was 7-1 with a 5.25 ERA in 24 appearances over 60 innings.
“As far as finishing games, Vermillion made a big jump this fall,” said Van Horn. “His fastball was 95 [mph], but he’s got an out pitch with a little cutter that’s hard and it moves. Elijah Trest [1-1, 7.58 ERA last year] can finish games. He was up to 96 [mph] this fall. Ramage can also be a starter. He had a really good year last year and he knows it. He threw really well this fall. I think he’s highly motivated. He can be a long reliever, come in at the sixth and finish a game or he can start.”
Calling the pitches will be Opitz, back for his second season as starting catcher. He spent the summer playing for Team USA after hitting .243 with 33 runs batted in, including a .265 average with 15 RBI in Southeastern Conference play.
“When we recruited him, we loved him defensively, but he was 160 pounds,” said Van Horn. “He’s up to 195 now and he’s hitting the ball with authority. I think you’ll see a big difference in his bat, see the ball jumping off the bat and hitting some home runs. He’s getting strong, and that has to do with him working and his age, and he’s made himself a pro prospect. He’s like having a coach on the field. He’s running the show out there. The players respect him. He works extremely hard.”
Goodheart is also back after leading the team with a .345 average while driving in 47 and scoring 35. Kjerstad hit .327 with a team-high 17 home runs and knocked in 51. Martin hit .286 with 15 home runs and 57 RBI, and Franklin hit .274 and was second on the team with 12 stolen bases. Sophomore Jacob Nesbit also returns at second base after batting .255.
“Goodheart was all-conference as a designated hitter last year and one reason we made it back to the World Series,” said Van Horn. “Heston will play some first base and outfield. I don’t know if he made one error all fall, and he’s new to the first base position. He did a good job. Christian has really improved. His fall was really good. He cut down on strikeouts, hit doubles, hit for power and stole bases. He played a good centerfield and he’s going to play a better centerfield.”
Martin and Goodheart missed time in the fall with injuries, but Martin was dealing with a broken bone in his hand.
“It’s a bat-swinging injury,” said Van Horn. “It can happen over time or in one swing. It’s that little bone [hamate] that has a hook on the end of it. It happens all the time. Once you get it taken out, usually you’re fine.”
Newcomers to watch are Blake Adams, a two-way player (a pitcher and a fielder) from Springdale who was the Arkansas Preps Baseball Player of the Year, and Braydon Webb, who can play infield or outfield.
“Blake has a lot of power and is throwing better than he ever did in high school,” said Van Horn. “He’s a guy I can see starting, whether it’s on the weekend or a Tuesday or Wednesday. We’re going to try to develop him into a starter. We see him more as a pitcher. I think Braydon likes the outfield, but he can really turn the double play. We’ll work with him at both, but he will probably be in the outfield.”
The lineup could also see Cole Austin at third, and Zack Gregory, Bryce Matthews or Curtis Washington in the outfield.
Fans attending games at Baum-Walker Stadium will notice construction around right field. The J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Baseball Development Center, an approximately 49,000-square-foot baseball performance facility, will provide an improved and expanded locker room, team meeting room, strength and conditioning center, training room, nutrition center, student-athlete pitching and development lab, and an in-venue batting tunnel. The Norm DeBriyn Champions Lobby will feature numerous historical displays and interactive content showcasing the history of Razorback baseball.