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Arkansas starter up in air

by Tom Murphy | June 20, 2022 at 2:35 a.m.

OMAHA, Neb. -- University of Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said Sunday afternoon that he's still not sure who will take the mound to start tonight's College World Series winner's bracket game against SEC West foe Ole Miss at 6 o'clock.

Right-hander Will McEntire or lefty Zack Morris is almost certain to get the ball for the Razorbacks (44-19), and whomever it is will oppose freshman left-hander Hunter Elliott (4-3, 2.82 ERA).

"We're not 100% sure, honestly," Van Horn said when asked if he could name the Razorbacks' starter after his team's Father's Day workout at Nebraska-Omaha.

"We talked about it again this morning on the bus on the way over here. You know, we've got to figure out how we want to start it. We feel like we've got two good options."

McEntire (1-2, 2.81 ERA) started Game 2 of last weekend's NCAA Chapel Hill (N.C.) Super Regional, allowing no runs on 3 hits and 2 walks with 4 strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings against 10 seed North Carolina.

McEntire, who left with a 2-0 lead, got a no-decision in a game the Tar Heels came back to take a 3-2 lead in the top of the ninth before Brady Slavens' game-winning single in the bottom of the inning.

McEntire has allowed 5 earned runs on 9 hits and 9 walks in 14 2/3 postseason innings, including two starts.

Morris (6-0, 1.89 ERA) has made three appearances in the NCAA Tournament and allowed 2 runs on 8 hits and 4 walks, with 6 strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings for a 2.70 ERA.

Morris started and worked 3 1/3 scoreless innings at 7 seed Oklahoma State in the Razorbacks' 7-3 win that clinched the NCAA Stillwater Regional on June 6.

Van Horn said he needed to talk to pitching Coach Matt Hobbs before nailing down the decision.

"It's probably going to come down to the bullpen anyway," he said. "We'd like to get off to a good start against a really good hitting team."

Less woo pig

Ole Miss freshman Hunter Elliott, today's scheduled starter, was asked prior to Sunday's workout at Creighton University what he's learned about trying to tune out Hog calls when he's pitching against the Razorbacks.

"I would say rather than trying to tune them out, make it to where they don't do it as much would be better," Elliott said, drawing laughter from the media. "So if you allow less runs, you won't hear it as much is what I kind of figured out. The less home runs, the less runs you allow, the less woo pigs."

Elliott allowed 3 runs on 4 hits and a walk in 6 innings of a no-decision in a 6-3 loss to the Razorbacks on April 30 at Baum-Walker Stadium. He gave up a solo home run to Brady Slavens in the first inning and a two-run shot to Braydon Webb in the fifth after hitting Jace Bohrofen with a pitch. He left with a 3-2 deficit, but the Rebels scored a run in the eighth to tie it before Kendall Diggs' walk-off three-run homer in the ninth.

"He can spot it up with the best of them," Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said, comparing the Tupelo, Miss., product to former Ole Miss All-American Doug Nikhazy.

"I think it helps just building that scouting report and just seeing how the pitches move," Webb said of facing Elliott earlier. "But every game is different. We've got to come out with a good game plan, which we will, and just continue to play with that edge that we have."

'He's a dog'

Arkansas right-hander Connor Noland threw 79 pitches in 7 2/3 innings in the middle of a 90-plus degree day in Saturday's 17-2 win over Stanford. Noland improved to 3-0 in the NCAA Tournament and he's worked at least 6 2/3 innings in each of his starts.

"He's a dog, man," Arkansas center fielder Braydon Webb said. "Like he's always giving us a chance and he's going late into games and it gives us a lot of confidence throughout the games."

Noland lowered his ERA to 1.27 in his three postseason starts by holding Stanford to two earned runs on Saturday.

Vets battle

Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn and Ole Miss Coach Mike Bianco have coached 71 games against each other in their 20 seasons that have overlapped in the SEC, but they have never been in opposing dugouts at the College World Series.

That will change tonight when the Razorbacks play the Rebels at Charles Schwab Field, the latest in a series of big matchups between the programs that are among the titans of SEC West baseball.

"In our league, we're always going to run into SEC teams here it seems like," Van Horn said. "It seems like two, three or four teams make it almost every year. That's just the way it is. You're going to face them. If you don't see them right out of the gate, you'll see them."

Arkansas and Ole Miss have combined to win division titles in nine of the past 18 seasons. Three times the programs finished top two in the SEC West standings, most recently in 2018 when they shared the division title.

In 2019, the Razorbacks defeated the Rebels 14-1 in Game 3 of the Fayetteville Super Regional to advance to the College World Series.

"We've had some wars with them, obviously, over the years," Bianco said. "Some we've won and some we haven't, but I think it comes down to they're really good and we've been good. When you put two teams together that are good, usually they're pretty good baseball games.

"We respect them a ton and what Dave has done there is an amazing job over his tenure. He's been there almost as long as I've been here, so a lot of really good games and I'm certain [tonight] will be another one."

The 72nd game between Van Horn and Bianco will add to what is believed to be a record for two SEC coaches, though there is no known official statistic. Long-time coaches Skip Bertman of LSU and Ron Polk of Mississippi State and Georgia coached 66 games against each other between 1984-2001.

Polk and Bertman rank first and second in victories as an SEC head coach. Bianco and Van Horn rank third and fifth, respectively.

Omaha will be the fifth city in which Van Horn and Bianco have coached against each other. In addition to their home ballparks in Fayetteville and Oxford, Miss., their teams have played 10 times at the SEC Tournament in Hoover Ala., and they also met at an early season event in Minneapolis in 2007.

Bianco has a 40-31 record in head-to-head matchups, but Van Horn's teams have won 7 of the last 10.

Blowout central

Following Texas A&M's 10-2 win over Texas in the first elimination game of the CWS on Sunday, the first five games have all been decided by a grand slam or more, and some have been complete wipeouts, highlighted by Arkansas' 17-2 win over Stanford in Saturday's Bracket 2 opener.

The average margin per game has been 7.2 runs. The closest scores, heading into Sunday's Bracket 1 nightcap between Oklahoma and Notre Dame, have been Notre Dame's 7-3 victory over Texas on Friday and Ole Miss' 5-1 win over Auburn on Saturday.

Brotherly love

Arkansas hitting coach and recruiting coordinator Nate Thompson spoke glowingly Friday about his older brother being hired as head baseball coach at Baylor.

Mitch Thompson was officially announced by the Bears on Wednesday, replacing Steve Rodriguez, who resigned in May after seven seasons.

Mitch Thompson was an assistant at Baylor from 1995-2012 and helped the team to three Big 12 championships and the 2005 College World Series. The Bears were a national seed in his final season as an assistant but lost a pair of one-run games to Arkansas in a home super regional.

"He's the perfect man for that job," Nate Thompson said. "Nobody loves Baylor more than him and he's as good of a coach as there is in the country. It's the perfect fit. He's what they need."

Mitch Thompson left Baylor to become a scout for the Kansas City Royals, but re-entered coaching in 2014 when he was hired as head coach at McLennan Community College in Waco, about 7 miles from the Baylor campus. McLennan was the NJCAA World Series champion last season and won nearly 73% of its games under Thompson with postseason appearances each year.

He was also on College World Series staffs at Mississippi State in 1990 and Auburn in 1994.

"He's a recruiter and he's a coach, and he develops guys and holds them to a high standard," Nate Thompson said. "All he's done is win there. Baylor was really good when he was there and I think he'll really help them again."

Arkansas shortstop Jalen Battles played for Thompson at McLennan, and the Razorbacks have signed another McLennan infielder, Hunter Grimes, for next season.

Elite ace

Arkansas center fielder Braydon Webb was announced as a winner of the NCAA's Elite 90 Award on Saturday.

The Elite 90 Award goes to the athlete at each NCAA championship site who has the highest cumulative grade-point average. Webb, a senior majoring in operations management, has a 3.957 GPA.

Hogs vs. SEC

Arkansas will play a game against an SEC team at the College World Series tonight for the seventh time since joining the league. Arkansas' last all-SEC game in Omaha was in 2018 when the Razorbacks defeated Florida 5-2 in a national semifinal.

Arkansas lost twice to eventual national champion LSU in 2009 by scores of 9-1 and 14-5. The Razorbacks went 1-2 against national runner-up South Carolina in 2012. Arkansas snapped the Gamecocks' 22-game NCAA Tournament winning streak with a 2-1 victory that year, but needing one victory over the Gamecocks to play in the national championship series, the Razorbacks lost 2-0 and 3-2.

Arkansas has a 3-6 record against SEC teams in Omaha, including games that were played when Arkansas was a member of the Southwest Conference.

The Razorbacks lost 5-4 to Mississippi State at the 1985 College World Series. In 1987, Arkansas defeated Georgia 5-4 before a season-ending 5-2 loss to LSU.

The 1985 Razorbacks defeated South Carolina 1-0 in Omaha, but that was before the Gamecocks joined the SEC.

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