Tusk to Tail: More runs than Fireball returns the Hogs to Omaha
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Pack your bags for Omaha! Arkansas swept through Chapel Hill, N.C. with a dramatic 4-3 walkoff win over the Tar Heels Sunday (June 12). The Razorbacks’ Super Regional victory punched their ticket to the College World Series for the 11th time in school history.
The road trip to redemption began the previous weekend when the Hogs outlasted Oklahoma State in the Stillwater, Okla., Regional.
Tusk to Tail was with the Omahogs all along the way, and we are not done yet. As Robert Earl Keen and the Highwaymen like to remind us, the road goes on forever and the party never ends. But the 2022 season wasn’t always a smooth trip.
Pitching and hitting each became emotional roller coaster rides for Hog fans at various points of the season. Most expected the Arkansas bats to keep us competitive while Coach Dave Van Horn tinkered to find the right pitching rotation. Instead, the rotation almost immediately fell into place with Senior Connor Noland, Freshman Hagan Smith, and Sophomore Jaxon Wiggins. Freshman Brady Tygart quickly assumed the role of closer.
Unfortunately the Hog’s offense remained inconsistent, as veterans such as Robert Moore and Jalen Battles struggled to match last year’s explosive output. Solo home runs or strikeouts, dingers or double plays, Arkansas lived and died by the long ball. Our friend Forrest kindly offered to help the Hogs’ hitting coach Nate Thompson pack and move during a mid-season slump.
Hog fans continuously looked for a spark to ignite the team. Despite series wins over Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss, and Auburn, that spark never seemed to come. Once the bats started heating up, Arkansas pitching often found itself back in the weeds. Even capturing a live raccoon in the Hog Pen during the Vanderbilt series wasn’t enough to fuel an Arkansas rally. The Hogs lost four games in a row and 6 of their last 8 to end the season and SEC tournament.
As the losses mounted, the volume of fans grousing increased. It was a complicated time for our entitled fanbase. Graduate transfer catcher Michael Turner admitted that some of the negative Twitter commentary was getting inside players’ heads. An Arkansas sports radio host was reprimanded for calling Turner a “stupid ass rental player” in response.
As the late-season losses mounted, the Hogs fell from a projected national seed to playing their regional and super regional tournaments on the road. The last time Arkansas was sent away during regional play was in 2015. Those Hogs also played in Stillwater before eventually earning a berth in the College World Series.
A trip to Omaha was the last thing most of Tusk to Tail (TTT) expected from this year’s squad, though. A quick exit from the tournament, “two and barbecue” as they say in double-elimination brackets, seemed far more likely for the Razorbacks.
Making matters worse, the #1 seed and clear favorite to win this year’s championship was the Tennessee Volunteers, coached by former Arkansas assistant Tony Vitello. Known for their brash swagger and celebration, the Vols are the complete opposite of Van Horn’s understated Razorbacks in every facet of the game. Tennessee dominated the regular season, and had the fur coats and daddy hats to prove it.
But baseball is a funny game.
Last year’s Razorbacks were widely considered the best team assembled in school history, winning the SEC regular season and conference tournament to be the top seed. Many believed it was Van Horn’s best chance to finally win a national championship. Instead, North Carolina State upset Arkansas in the Fayetteville Super Regional, dashing the Hogs’ hopes before they ever got to Omaha.
I found I wasn’t alone in wishing a similar fate for Tennessee this year. If the Hogs can’t win it all, Lord, please don’t let those loudmouth Vols get a title before us.
If you watch much college baseball, you know that Tennessee didn’t exactly corner the market on amateurish douchebaggery. Players from Stillwater to Starkville work on their bat flips and mullets in addition to hitting and fielding these days. Some of that attitude by Oklahoma State might have finally helped fuel a spark in the Razorbacks. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the wins happened on the road, away from negative fair weather fans.
After dispatching Grand Canyon without drama in the first game, Arkansas was ready to face the Cowboys. Many of the Oklahoma State players had bleached their hair and grown a mustache for the occasion. My sister said OSU second baseman Roc Riggio looked like a dirty Q-tip. Someone in the stands said Riggio’s parents seemed to have given him two career choices: baseball or porn.
Make no mistake, it wasn’t great baseball in Stillwater. Arkansas struggled to throw strikes, and both teams gave up bases on walks and hit batters. The Cowboys led 7-2 after 3 innings, and held a 10-5 advantage after the 6th. OSU fans began heading to the exits assuming they had the game in hand. Those who kept watching witnessed an epic meltdown as the Razorbacks rallied to win 20-12. The only downside, according to Forrest, was that the Hogs scored more runs than he brought Fireball to drink in celebration. TTT vowed to bring reinforcements when we met up in Stillwater the following morning.
Oklahoma State managed to take the 2nd game of the series, but seemed to run out of gas before Monday’s rubber match. Arkansas beat the Cowboys 7-3 to advance to Chapel Hill. Forrest said his favorite part of the Stillwater regional was leaving.
Dale and Kara flew to North Carolina for the Super Regional, and found their Tobacco Road hosts charming and hospitable for the most part. It became obvious that college baseball might not be as big of a deal there when the hotel desk clerk asked what brought them to town. Arkansas fans gobbled up their allotment of tickets and then some, coloring wide swaths of Boshamer Stadium Razorback red. Tar Heel fans responded by calling our fans “bacon,” which really isn’t much of an insult.
Despite two lengthy weather delays Sunday, the Razorbacks put together their best series performance in months. Noland and Will McEntire pitched well in their respective starts, and our batters took care of the rest. Freshman Peyton Stovall was clutch all weekend.
Baseball is a funny game.
Tennessee’s regular season dominance did little to hold off upstart Notre Dame, who is headed to Omaha for the first time since 2002. The tournament setting determines who is playing the best right now, not who was the best all season. Despite an up and down year, the Omahogs are still alive and playing about as well as anyone.
Could this finally be the year Van Horn puts it all together to win the title? TTT is heading to the College World Series to find out.
The road goes on forever and the party never ends.
Editor’s note: Now in its 10th year, Tusk to Tail is the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. The primary focus of Tusk to Tail will be to follow the Hogs through the fans’ perspective with their insightful, irreverent, smart-alecky and sometimes practical style. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.