Arkansas Pushes Past Florida To Reach College World Series Finals

Image credit: (Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

OMAHA, Neb.—Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn doesn’t always have a pregame motivational speech for his team, especially at this stage of the season. After all, if the Razorbacks need him to fire them up to play in the College World Series, the battle has already been lost.

But on Friday, Van Horn had a pregame message for the Razorbacks before they played Florida with a trip to the CWS finals on the line. It was a simple, but effective.

“I don’t care if they have the best player in the SEC, and I don’t care if they have the best pitcher in the SEC,” Van Horn said. “We have a good team and we need to take it to them.”

Van Horn left it at that and walked away. The Razorbacks responded at the time and on the field. Arkansas jumped out to an early lead against Florida, the Southeastern Conference champion, and went on to a 5-2 victory. With the win, Arkansas advanced to the CWS finals for the first time since 1979.

It is a moment Arkansas has been long building toward. The Razorbacks play in the best ballpark in the country in front of one of the most spirited fan bases and have under Van Horn consistently produced big league talent such as Andrew Benintendi and Dallas Keuchel. But they have never won a national title and hadn’t even been able to break through to play for the trophy in the last four decades.

To do so, Arkansas had to go through Florida, the defending champion, and righthander Brady Singer, the College Player of the Year. The Gators (49-21) had designs on repeating as national champions and for much of the year looked like the best team in the country. They won the SEC going away and entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed. Singer was one of three first-team All-Americans on the roster, joined by third baseman Jonathan India, the SEC player of the year, and closer Michael Byrne.

Arkansas didn’t care. On Friday, righthander Isaiah Campbell outdueled Singer, retiring the first 14 batters he faced and finishing with a career-high eight strikeouts in 5.1 innings. Freshman Casey Martin went 4-for-5 and scored three runs. Dominic Fletcher homered for the second straight game and drove in two runs. Closer Matt Cronin threw two scoreless innings to close out the win.

The Razorbacks (47-19) are playing their best baseball at the right time of year.

“Defense is solid, pitching is there, hitting is there,” Martin said. “We’re not being selfish basically. We need to bunt, we’re going to bunt. Give yourself up for the next guy. We’re playing as a family, not just as a team. I think that’s what’s pushing us, motivating us.”

While Arkansas is hitting on all cylinders right now, Florida came up short in Omaha. It lost its opening game of the CWS to Texas Tech, leaving it to fight through the losers’ bracket. It knocked out Texas and Texas Tech in successive elimination games to get to the semifinals for the third time in four years. But even with Singer on the mound Friday, the Gators just couldn’t find a way to slow down the Razorbacks, who are right now playing like the best team in the country.

“There’s been a lot on their plate, so to speak, from Day 1,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “And they battled and they lived up to the expectations. As you know, it’s not easy to do.”

Florida and Arkansas came into the year as the favorites in their respective divisions—the Gators in the East and the Razorbacks in the West. They lived up to those lofty expectations and may have been the two most complete teams in the nation. Arkansas finishes with a slight head-to-head edge on Florida—it won three of the five meetings this year—and gets a chance to play for the ultimate bragging rights.

Friday’s result doesn’t change the legacy of Florida’s remarkable junior class and seniors Nick Horvath and J.J. Schwarz. Singer will go down as one of the greatest pitchers in Florida history. Schwarz on Friday set the program’s all-time games played record. India, Singer and righthander Jackson Kowar give the program three more first-round picks. The group last year helped Florida win the first national championship in program history.

The class’ legacy goes beyond what happened on the field, Kowar said.

“I couldn’t have been more blessed to end up at Florida, especially with the group of guys I did in my class,” he said. “We’ve accomplished a ton here and it’s been a lot more than the baseball stuff that you guys see. It’s just the best group of guys I could have asked to be around. I just feel really blessed.”

Florida fell short of becoming the first team since South Carolina in 2011 to repeat as national champion, but what the Gators’ upperclassmen have accomplished will long be remembered in Gainesville.

“I think they set the standard,” O’Sullivan said. “Most of the time schools just dream about getting to Omaha and we had four straight years, won a national championship, been in the final four three out of the last four (years). It’s not easy to do.”

The Razorbacks now have a chance to make their own history. Arkansas rolled through the tougher bracket in Omaha, beating Texas, Texas Tech and Florida in succession. Its pitching is aligned for the finals, with ace Blaine Knight lined up to pitch Monday’s Game 1 and Kacey Murphy following Tuesday. It gets an extra day of rest while Mississippi State and Oregon State duke it out Saturday for the other finals spot.

The Razorbacks know their job isn’t done yet. Just making the finals isn’t what they came to Omaha to do.

“What it means to me is that these players are still playing as hard as they can and that I really appreciate that,” Van Horn said. “They don’t want the season to end. It means a lot to be here, but we still have work to do.”

Arkansas is two wins away from finishing its work. Casey Martin, who grew up in Lonoke, a small town in central Arkansas, and dreamed of playing for the Razorbacks said this was even beyond his imagination.

“I never thought I’d be here, to be honest,” Martin said. “I dreamed about it my whole life. Dreamed to play for this team. Dreamed to start my freshman year.

“And I’m just super excited to play for these guys. Some cruise in here and some don’t. I just want to do what I can for each of them. And it’s a dream come true.”

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