The Road to Omahog
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The Road to Omahog began back in February, when Hell and half of Arkansas had frozen over. Razorbacks baseball got off to a red hot start, possibly explaining how Fayetteville was uncharacteristically spared the generational snowfall that blanketed much of the state. The # 8 Hogs swept through the College Baseball Showdown to pound # 3 Texas Tech, # 9 Texas, and # 10 TCU at Globe Life Field in Arlington, TX.
Masks were required and attendance was limited inside the sterile new Dallas ballpark that is shaped like an enormous BBQ grill. Our man Forrest was on the scene with his buddies from the Hogpen The gang even encountered a brief moment of Twitter notoriety for their constant heckling of the Big XII outfielders. Forrest claimed he was just visiting with the players about their mothers.
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn is known for tinkering with the lineup early in the season. 2021 was certainly no exception. Despite returning a solid group of veteran pitchers including Conner Noland, Caleb Bolden, Patrick Wicklander, and Kole Ramage, Van Horn started the season with Zebulon Vermillion, Peyton Pallette, and Lael Lockhart on the bump over the three day showcase.
Kevin Kopps came out of the bullpen in the opening game, and turned in a rather forgettable performance. The fifth year senior right hander allowed two hits, a walk, and an earned run in one inning. Kopps struck out two Red Raiders on Friday before retiring another five batters in two innings to earn the save against TCU on Sunday.
We might not have realized it at the time, but # 45 was automatic on the mound. Kopps earned a win (10-0) or save (10) in 20 of his 28 appearances over the season. He was never tagged with a loss, earning SEC Pitcher of the Year honors. Kopps has a legitimate shot at winning the Golden Spikes award reserved for the top US amateur baseball player.
The Hogs moved up the rankings, but didn’t always dominate their competition. The “heart attack Hogs” dramatically came from behind to snatch early season wins against Southeast Missouri State, Murray State, and Louisiana Tech.
Most of the drama would occur in the series openers, when opposing teams would throw their ace pitcher. A pattern began to emerge: Arkansas would do just enough to stay in the game before each team turned to their bullpen. Then the Diamond Hogs would feast on opposing relievers while relying on their extraordinary depth.
# 1 Arkansas was 12-0 heading into a Sunday matchup with Louisiana Tech in Ruston. Another strong outing by the Hogs’ rotation allowed only two runs. That was two more than the Razorbacks could muster that afternoon. The streak was over. The bats had gone cold.
By the following Friday night, the Hogs were streaking in the opposite direction. Arkansas lost a midweek heartbreaker to Oklahoma before getting their teeth kicked in 16-1 by #22 Alabama in the SEC opener. It is easy to say you never stopped believing in Van Horn’s Hogs, but many of the fans celebrating loudest today were sharpening their pitchforks during the 3-game losing streak just a couple of short months ago.
Having high expectations dashed into a heap of disappointment is nothing new for Tusk to Tail. We are lifelong Hog fans. Even when times seem really good, it is hard to keep from looking over our shoulders, waiting for the other shoe to drop. That shoe comes in various forms, from an uncaught foul ball to a Harley Davidson in a ditch.
But sometimes about every 25 years or so, when everything is aligned, it seems like nothing can get in the way of the Razorbacks’ athletic excellence. Ben Cowins suspended before the ‘78 Orange Bowl? Let’s see what Roland Sales can do. Senior Ron Crawford injured in the ‘94 NCAA Tourney? Honor him with a patch on the jersey, and keep cutting down those nets.
When your team is the best, you know it. Everyone knows it.
The Hogs recovered from that Alabama ass whuppin to win the next eight straight, including a sweep at #2 Mississippi State. Not only was Arkansas winning, they were curing the Coronavirus. Nearly every stadium they visited lifted their seating restrictions to allow full capacity just in time to host the top-ranked Razorbacks.
Home field advantage can only carry a team so far. The Diamond Hogs won every SEC series, just the second team in conference history to achieve that distinction. Arkansas won the regular season conference title before sailing through the SEC tournament undefeated. It was the Razorbacks’ first conference tournament championship under Van Horn.
Ask five different Hog fans who their favorite player is, and you might get five different answers. Robert Moore and Brady Slavens are tied for the team home run lead with 13 bombs, followed by Christian Franklin, Cayden Wallace, and Matt Goodheart’s 12 dong shots apiece. Jalen Battles earned SEC tournament MVP honors for his spectacular defense and timely hitting. Part time catcher and full time assassin Casey Opitz and his understudy Charlie Welch both keep the fans on their toes.
Cullen Smith earned some new fans with his performance down in Hoover, and all of a sudden nine players have been listed without even mentioning Kopps, who could win this year’s Golden Spikes. Can you say depth, boys and girls? I would keep going, but I don’t want Braydon Webb getting impatient.
Everyone loves a winner. This weekend’s regional is a hotter ticket than Hamilton right now. Demand is so high that Forrest was considering trading his tickets for a couple of sheets of plywood. Instead, he started waiting in line for Friday’s game against the New Jersey Institute of Technology with the other Hogpen psychopaths nearly 48 hours before first pitch.
The Arkansas Razorbacks are the best damn baseball team in the nation. It is time for all the world to know it.