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One hurdle cleared: Hogs now turn sights to Wolfpack

by Tom Murphy | June 9, 2021 at 6:54 a.m.
Arkansas pinch hitter Charlie Welch (19) is congratulated by teammates after he hit a home run during the ninth inning of an NCAA regional game against Nebraska on Monday, June 7, 2021, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Now that it's over, University of Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn admits he was perplexed by how the NCAA Baseball selection committee saw fit to send No. 19 Nebraska to the Fayetteville Regional.

The No. 1 Razorbacks survived an upset bid from the salty Cornhuskers, but they were pushed to an elimination game and did not claim a lead in the championship game until a four-run, two-out rally in the eighth inning sparked a 6-2 win.

The top-seeded Razorbacks (49-11) are moving on to this weekend's home super regional against North Carolina State (33-17), starting at 5 p.m. Friday on ESPNU, the first games between the programs in baseball. But only after the Hogs were taken to the wire by Nebraska, coached by Will Bolt, a former player and protege of Van Horn's, who was tagged with the nickname "Little DVH" during his days at Nebraska.

"When I saw them pop up, I thought, 'Why are they sending the Big Ten champion here?' It doesn't make any sense when you look around," Van Horn said late Monday. "You see some other regionals where a Power 5 is the No. 1 and they don't have another Power 5 team in the regional, and they might have been a seven or eight seed, nine, whatever. I know it's a really tough job and I get that, but Nebraska is a really good team."

Van Horn was referencing No. 7 national seed Mississippi State, which advanced through a regional that included Virginia Commonwealth, Campbell and Samford, and No. 9 national seed Stanford, which hosted California-Irvine, Nevada and North Dakota State over the weekend.

Bolt made it known how he feels about Van Horn and the Arkansas program.

"I think they have a great shot," Bolt said. "They haven't lost a series all year. They've got a lot of talent, a great coaching staff.

"They've got everything you need. They play great defense. They're athletic and they obviously can beat you in a bunch of different ways. They've got a great team, and I'd love to see Coach win his first national championship."

Bolt went on to praise the state of the Razorbacks.

"You can see what the best looks like when you come here," he said. "One of the best ballparks in the country. Unbelievable game day atmosphere. Just the way they support this team and obviously how talented Arkansas is. There's a reason they won every series in the SEC this year. SEC champs, SEC Tournament champs, we've seen what the best looks like."

Van Horn was super complimentary to the Huskers and the work of Bolt and his staff.

"They've gone on the road, stayed in hotels, played two games in a day, played two different teams, and I think that they came in here and they were a little comfortable, more comfortable than I wanted them to be," Van Horn said. "Trust me, I was very much leery of that and what they could do here."

Nebraska beat the Razorbacks 5-3 in a must-win game on Sunday behind left-hander Kyle Perry and super reliever Spencer Schwellenbach. The Huskers built a 2-0 lead behind lefty Cade Povich on Monday before Arkansas began its climb toward the eighth-inning explosion.

Regional MVP Kevin Kopps pitched like he had never done before with seven innings and 90 pitches to reach 185 pitches in three games during the regional. Kopps (12-0, 0.68 ERA, 11 saves) now has 120 strikeouts and 15 walks in his magical season.

Kopps pitched 13 1/3 innings in the regional and allowed 6 hits, no runs, no walks and 15 strikeouts. He threw 129 strikes in his 185 pitches, a rate of 69.7% strikes, and picked up two wins and a save in his three appearances.

Kopps said he got stronger as his innings progressed.

"I did feel that way," he said. "That's usually what happens if you look at my outings. Looking at my TrackMan reports, I usually start getting better the more I throw."

Razorbacks joining Kopps on the all-regional team were second baseman Robert Moore, shortstop Jalen Battles, outfielders Christian Franklin and Matt Goodheart, designated hitter Charlie Welch and pitcher Patrick Wicklander.

Arkansas will enter the super regional with 102 home runs, three shy of NCAA leader Old Dominion, whose season came to an end Tuesday with a 4-3 loss in 10 innings to Virginia in the Columbia (S.C.) Regional.

The Wolfpack come in super hot with 17 wins in their last 21 games, including a three-game sweep at the Ruston (La. ) Regional that included 8-3 and 14-7 wins over host Louisiana Tech.

"They're probably one of the most offensive teams in the country and they're hot," Van Horn said. "We figured that's who was going to win that regional. We all projected it."

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