By Matt Jones
Walking down the long basement hallway that leads to the exits of Schwab Field, the thought occurred never to take greatness for granted. It brought to mind the 1995 Arkansas basketball team that played in the program’s third Final Four in six seasons. Who would have ever thought leaving Seattle that year that the Razorbacks would not make it back to the sport’s pinnacle event for 27 years and counting? Or what about South Carolina baseball, which hasn’t returned to the College World Series since it won two national championships and played for a third between 2010-12? Too often we disregard how difficult it is to win at a high level the way Arkansas baseball has done for most of Dave Van Horn’s tenure. Omaha trips are almost expected more than hoped for, as is the case at most other programs. In 14 seasons, Arkansas has made the College World Series six times and might have made a seventh if not for the covid shutdown in 2020. The Razorbacks haven’t won the big one, but they are always in contention to do it. Those are the teams that almost always eventually break through. It is difficult to win postseason games — even more so as the competition level increases — and Arkansas did it eight times this year, including three times in Omaha. The Razorbacks were the only team to beat national champion Ole Miss, and might have won a title of their own if not for coming up on the losing end of one of the all-time great pitchers’ duels at the College World Series. It felt like the national champion was determined when Dylan DeLucia outdueled Connor Noland by a thin margin in the national semifinals. A national championship trophy cements greatness, but it doesn’t determine it. Nor does a lack of hardware diminish what the Razorbacks accomplished once again on college baseball’s biggest stage. Arkansas defeated two very good, Omaha-worthy teams on their home field in the regionals and super regionals. Oklahoma State and North Carolina might have dog piled with any other draw. North Carolina and Stanford were among the hottest teams in the country entering the postseason, yet they lost all of their games to the Razorbacks. Arkansas also beat a solid Auburn team while in Omaha. It was the type of baseball we expected to see from the Razorbacks with the type of experience they returned. Seventeen returning players got to experience the type of run expected the year before when the run was cut short by North Carolina State. What this year’s postseason proved was how undervalued Arkansas had been during the regular season. With so much emphasis on who the Razorbacks didn’t play in nonconference, it overshadowed the quality of teams they had beaten in the SEC. Arkansas was tied with Texas A&M atop the SEC West entering the final day of the regular season. The Aggies won the division by a game and got the No. 5 national seed, while the Razorbacks were sent to a regional as the supposed second-best team. The SEC put four teams in Omaha, had its undisputed champion eliminated one win shy of the College World Series, and had three teams finish one win shy of the super regional round. Three of the final four teams left in Omaha were from the SEC. The league was undervalued all season because Mississippi State had a down year and Ole Miss took months to play up to its potential. Never considered enough was the fact that Texas A&M and Auburn played up to the level of the Mississippi teams in previous years. By making it to Omaha and winning games there, the Aggies and the Tigers proved the SEC was never down; only the perception of it was. The league has had a stranglehold on the sport of baseball for a decade or more. Consider that since 2017, four different SEC programs have won the last five NCAA baseball championships. A fifth SEC program, Arkansas, nearly won it all in 2018. The list of national champions from the league over the last five years includes Florida, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Arkansas and LSU have also played in the title series during that time. Arkansas, Texas A&M and Auburn were among the final five teams standing, and Tennessee was the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament after what was maybe the most dominant regular season ever by a college baseball team. That’s nine SEC programs where baseball is a big deal. Yet, two are guaranteed to finish in the bottom half of the SEC next year, and that doesn’t take into account another baseball-crazy fan base in South Carolina. And, oh by the way, Texas and Oklahoma will be in the SEC soon. Both were in Omaha this year and the Sooners were national runner-up. Building a consistent winner against that kind of competition is not easy. As this year’s Ole Miss team can attest, just making the NCAA Tournament is a chore when coming through the SEC.