BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
If you just took a look at Ole Miss’ SEC mark of 1-8, you might think that this week’s trip to Oxford might be one of the easier road tests of the season, but Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn knows better.
Van Horn’s No. 5 Razorbacks (23-5, 6-3) will face the defending national champion yet struggling Rebels (17-11, 1-8) in a three-game series beginning Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. at Swayze Field.
Ole Miss head coach Mike Bianco, who just moved into second place in all-time SEC wins with 871, led his team to a national title last season despite a 7-14 league start.
“(I expect) what we get every time we play ‘em,” Van Horn said. “ It’s going to be a really good series, and usually it’s pretty intense. They’ve got great fans, they draw big crowds and I think it’ll be good. I mean everybody’s still trying to win. Nothing’s settled right now. No one’s buried yet, and no one’s running away with it.”
Van Horn is not surprised by any team’s success or struggles.
“Nothing surprises me, because of injuries, schedule, where you’re playing, it’s timing,” Van Horn said. “They’ve had some tough losses…You know, you’re playing teams in the Southeastern Conference. Nobody forgives you or feels sorry for you, they just want to beat you.”
Ole Miss outfielder Kemp Alderman, who has team-leading 11 homers and 42 RBI, is hoping this is the weekend things finally go right for the Rebels after being swept by xxxx and Florida and then losing 2 of 3 to Texas A&M last weekend.
“It is always a good game when we play Arkansas and I like playing them,” Alderman said on Ole Miss’ Tuesday night’s post-game radio show. “I think it will be a good ball game and I think we are ready to play.. We have a good vibe as a team and I don’t think we are down on ourselves.
“We are just trying to show up every day, just get better and keep playing and eventually it is going to turn around and the ball is going to start going our way.”
Van Horn knows the Arkansas-Ole Miss series is a favorite and more important to some Razorback fans than other SEC school.
“I’m sure, like you said, the fans will make it bigger than it is to us,” Van Horn said. “They all count the same and at the end of the year, you just look to see what your record is. You don’t really know who you beat, you just know how many wins you’ve got, how many losses. It’s going to make a difference on if you get to go to a (NCAA Tournament) Regional, host a Regional or you’re not in one.”
“Obviously, we’re just going to try to win Thursday. We want to win the series. They’re in a situation where they need to win a series in the worst way. They could flip it real quick. You’ve just got to play solid. We’ll do everything we can to win that first game and go from there.”
Ole Miss comes into the series off a 7-2 Tuesday night win at Memphis that served as Bianco’s 841st victory.
That moved him one win past his old LSU head coach and mentor Skip Bertman and into second place in all-tie SEC wins behind former Mississippi State and Georgia head coach Ron Polk, who has a whopping 1,218.
“It was a tough one to get,” Bianco said. “It’s been a while and a tough few weeks for us. I have said when you have those longevity type records or accolades or whatever you want to call them, it’s because I have been here a long time so it means I have had a lot of good players and a lot of good coaches.
“I don’t that as coach speak or just being humble. You don’t get here and get 871 wins because you are a good coach. You do it because you have good coaches next to you and you certainly have some good players.”
Bianco, whose team went 3-3 against Arkansas last season and ended the Razorbacks season in the College World Series, is hoping the mid-week road win over Memphis will spark his team.
“No doubt,” Bianco said. “You always talk about big weekends and the big weekend is the one that is always right in front of us. We played pretty clean tonight, had some good at bats as we mentioned…I know the guys will be ready to get after it on Thursday.
Van Horn, who has xxxx SEC wins in 20 seasons at Arkansas, and Bianco have coached against each other 74 times since 2003 with the 23rd-year Rebels coach having won 42 of those.
But Van Horn and Arkansas are looking to take a fourth straight regular season series from Ole Miss.
“We’ve coached against each other a record amount of times in the league,” Van Horn said. “He’s a really good baseball coach, good guy. It doesn’t surprise me that they flipped it last year. They had the parts to do it. I think everybody that played them early was kind of like ‘Man, I’m glad that’s over with because those guys are good.’ I mean, they were ranked No. 1 in the country for a while there, and then everything went wrong.
“I think they won just enough down the stretch and got in. Once they got in, it didn’t matter. I think they knew they were going to win the Regional, and they did. They were very experienced, very talented, and they can pitch.”
Arkansas is set to start Hunter Hollan (4-1, 3.50) on Friday against Ole Miss junior right hander Jack Doughtery (2-2, 5.79), but has not announced its Friday or Saturday starter.
Hollan handcuffed No.1 LSU by pitching shutout baseball into the sixth inning two weeks ago, but struggled last week in a 12-2 home loss to Alabama.
“Yeah, I expect him to bounce back,” Van Horn said. “ He had been so good for us. You can’t expect him to be that good every time out. Sometimes… Going down to Baton Rouge, everybody’s all excited and pumped up. I’m not saying that he took anybody lightly, but he faced a team that hits just as well or better than LSU.
“Maybe just don’t have the star power names, but the lineup is probably just as deep. It’s one through nine, they can hurt you. They just did a good job. I think they got off to a really good start on him, and it bothered him a little bit, but I think he’ll bounce back. He’s going to face another good lineup. It’ll be a major challenge.”
Will McEntire, the Razorbacks’ normal Saturday starter, has battled the flu this week, but is on the travel roster.
Former Ole Miss pitcher Cody Adcock could start for Arkansas against the Rebels and almost certainly be in relief if he doesn’t open a game.
“I think that he needs to stay within and do what you can do, and that’s all you can do,” said of a possible amped-up Adcock. “I think 10 years ago, if it had been this, but now with the portal and all that goes on, a year’s gone by, I don’t think it’s a big deal.”
Arkansas is likely to keep ace starter turned closer Hagan Smith (5-0, 2.35) in relief.
“We’re not 100% sure, but I’d say as of right now probably so,” Van Horn said. … Smith, it’s unbelievable the attitude he’s taken with it. It’s a team first thing. I mean, the guy is helping us win games. Saving them, coming in and getting a win or whatever it is.
“We haven’t really had the situation where he’s just throwing a few pitches, say on a Friday, where we could use him again. I think that’ll happen if we get to the point where we just need him to go close a game in the ninth, we can still use the next day or start him on Sunday or whatever.
“But right now, we’re just trying to win the game in front of us. If we have a shot, we’re going for it.”
Van Horn said he is feel fortunate to be 6-3 and tied for the SEC Western Division lead with LSU.
Credit to the players, man,” Van Horn said. “Playing hard, trying to win hard. It’s been fun being in the dugout with us. Hasn’t been fun when we’ve gotten whipped those games, but the other days have been good.
“We’ve come back in a lot of those games that we feel like we’re not out of the game, and we can score. I don’t even feel like we’re hitting like we’re going to hit.
“The conference batting average isn’t very good, but nobody’s really is if you go look at them. Overall, we’ve got four guys that are swinging it pretty good in the lineup, but I’ve got another four or five in the lineup that it’s just OK. If those guys can get going, then you start scoring more runs.”
Photo by John D. James