Arkansas Athletics

It’s only fitting that this is a leap year, because it’s been one that Arkansas fans would’ve preferred skip.

At least, so far.

Yes, the football team and both basketball teams fell far below expectations. Sam Pittman’s job status went from safe to shaky in a matter of weeks, and Eric Musselman and Mike Neighbors are catching some heat now, too, with the hoops squads combining for a 33-28 aggregate record and only 12 SEC wins.

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Both are in the back of the pack of the league, and postseason hopes are dim — even meaning the NIT or WNIT — because of the sheer ugliness of some of the defeats. Of Musselman’s 11 losses in conference play, seven have been by double digits, and Neighbors’ women really struggled at the end with four straight losses when they were at least still on the bubble.

It’s not been the best 2023-24 for the flagship programs, to say the least. From September to March, it’s been blow after blow to the already-wounded state of Hog fans.

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Well, baseball and softball have come along, finally and fully, and this tough period could at least ebb for a while. Courtney Deifel’s on track for her sixth 40-win season in nine years as the softball coach; the program had only two such seasons in the first 18 of its modern existence.

She’s got a solid nucleus of returnees, even though ace pitcher Chenise Delce went pro. The lineup boasts some pop with Rylin Hedgecock returning after a 21-homer 2023 season, and Cylie Halvorson is off to another hot start. Bri Ellis has been a revelation, too, with 22 RBIs in the first 21 games.

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In the circle, the pitching staff still has proven returnees in Robyn Herron and Hannah Camenzind, and Morgan Leinstock is off to a fantastic 4-0 start after transferring from Southern Mississippi. Even without Delce, Arkansas should be able to keep opposing offenses limited.

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While the softballers have jumped out to a 17-4 start, Dave Van Horn’s got the second-ranked baseball team churning out early-season wins again. The formula for this team, however, appears quite different than recent Omaha-bound entries from Fayetteville.

Instead of being a collection of mashers, this lineup is playing mostly station-to-station baseball early. Through 12 games (10-2), only one Hog has more than one homer (Jayson Jones) and the team’s slugging is a pedestrian .438, though it’s still a group replete with deep-ball potential. Kendall Diggs finally uncorked his first homer of the season in a weekend sweep of Murray State, but his 12 home runs last year represent almost half of the 25 bombs that remain — and that’s on a roster that cranked 92 in 61 games in 2023.

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Of course, that team had to do a lot of aggressive swinging, because the injury-addled pitching staff really struggled (5.22 ERA and over four walks per nine innings), and ultimately just gave out in the Regional against a suspiciously hot TCU bunch. It already appears Arkansas won’t have those same limitations this time around.

Hagen Smith’s 2023 season (8-2, 3.64 ERA, 109 strikeouts in 71.2 innings) was pretty impressive given that he missed some time, but Brady Tygart’s arm troubles limited him to 10 games and just six starts. So far this season, neither has faltered whatsoever.

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Smith’s electric, 17-strikeout, one-hit effort against Oregon State has been the highlight so far, even if the bullpen’s failing left him with a no-decision that night (Arkansas took the contest in the 9th). He’s compiled an almost-unthinkable 31 strikeouts in 13 innings of work, and not far behind him is Texas Tech transfer Mason Molina, who has racked up 29 of his own in 13.2 innings.

With Tygart and freshman southpaw Colin Fisher also throwing well early, this is possibly the best top-to-bottom collection of starting pitchers that Van Horn has had in his tenure. And despite the pen having some hiccups, Will McEntire is off to a solid start, and returnees Dylan Carter, Gage Wood, Koty Frank, Christian Foutch, and Parker Coil are going to be the workhorses in the late innings. Frank and promising freshman Gabe Gaeckle each have two saves, suggesting there may be a committee approach to closing unless somebody gets into a Kevin Kopps-like groove.

Bogle Park and Baum-Walker Stadium, of course, enhance these programs’ appeal enormously. And packed, rowdy stands this spring may be as healing as anything else for Hog fans who’ve been a little dazed by all the disappointments. Both teams enter SEC play on Friday, March 15 (Missouri comes to Baum-Walker while the softball squad heads to Auburn) with sparkling national profiles and rankings, and with few obvious problems revealed so far. Deifel’s team has lost four games by a total of eight runs; for the baseballers, their record has only been tainted by a Saturday hiccup in the opening series with James Madison and a 14-inning loss in Arlington to Oklahoma State.

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The basketball seasons aren’t quite over. Neighbors gets the first shot at closing out strong with a matchup against Auburn in the SEC tournament at 5:00 p.m. this evening, and Musselman’s crew isn’t dead in the water for Saturday’s regular-season finale at Tuscaloosa (the Tide have a shaky defense and three rough losses in their last four games). They’ll also go into the league tourney in a few days with as much hope as any team for a potential run, simply because they’ve played mostly decent, competitive ball in recent weeks.

Realistically, though, this season is for the diamond sports to shine, and incidentally, both golf teams are in the national Top 10, too. (This column will delve into this program’s recent strides soon). The sun will shine in Fayetteville for a while now that we’ve hit March, and perhaps the misfortunes of fall and winter will disappear accordingly.

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