It probably edged on the bounds of realism to expect much more from an essentially made-over Arkansas baseball team in 2014 than what the Razorbacks ended up giving us.
They got to the NCAA tourney after a relatively strong finish washed away some midseason doubts about postseason viability. Of course, the Hogs were one of a record-setting 10 entrants in the overall field from the SEC, and their exit from the Charlottesville Regional after four games there made them one of eight of those teams to not survive the first weekend. At least in the Razorbacks’ case, being situated as second chair behind the third overall national seed, Virginia, meant they weren’t expected to go far. The same couldn’t be said for Florida, which thoroughly embarrassed itself with a quick elimination at home, or LSU, which also saw its friendly confines turn treacherous.
Vanderbilt and Ole Miss survived the regionals and then powered through heady competition in rubber matches against Stanford and Louisiana-Lafayette, respectively, to win their Super Regionals and give the league fit representation in Omaha. But after so many traditional SEC powers were bounced early, the questions about the conference’s ego that always come about in the fall necessarily surface again.
In its charmed run of seven straight BCS titles that wound up being mere seconds short of eight in January, the SEC’s football dominance was national fodder and regional braggadocio. Those who read this column with any regularity know that the author finds this to be less superiority and more superfluity, especially if you are a Razorback fan, since two decades of membership in this fraternity has brought plenty of humiliation along with it. It’s still, for football, a league of haves and have-nots, or at least one where the have-littles can’t unseat the have-lots.
The disparity isn’t as pernicious in baseball, mind you, but at the end of the season Arkansas still found itself on the outside peering longingly in. When the Hogs made a couple of sweet runs to Omaha in 2009 and 2012, they got swallowed up by two of their own in-league rivals, with LSU battering them twice en route to a title the first time and two-time defending champion South Carolina sending them packing three years later. The positive news was that those squads got awfully close to the heights that had eluded the bellcow football and basketball programs for so long, but there was the lingering reminder that the Hogs couldn’t reach national prominence without their own rivals getting squarely in the way.
So goes the blessing and the curse of being a bit player in a big-budget production. Courtesy of victories against Liberty and Bucknell in the regional, Dave Van Horn hit the 40-win mark as head Hog for the fifth time in six years and kept alive a perfect 12-for-12 run of reaching the national tournament in his dozen years at the helm. The program is successful and consistent, if always stalling at the cusp of something greater. That stretch has been an island of serenity in tumultuous seas for Hog fans: We find ourselves pining for spring and leery of the other seasons. Sure, it ain’t ideal, but amid arduous and oft-controversial times for the bigger programs in recent years, it is good to have one of the athletic teams being something close to Gibraltar.
There’s cause for optimism next season, too, since first-year hitting coach Tony Vitello got some late-season results from a much-maligned offense and the Major League Draft didn’t completely fleece the roster. As always, there’s incoming talent that should offset some of the personnel losses that do occur.
The line that separates salvation and frustration is pretty thin. Arkansas baseball at least dances around it from year to year, giving the athletic department some banners to hang while Mike Anderson and Bret Bielema do what they can to restock the bare, busted shelves they inherited.