Arkansas Razorbacks baseball has made the 2021 season its relentless personal redemption tour, but for a perilous 24 hours, the Hogs found themselves in an unexpected detour on the freeway back to Omaha and the College World Series, locked in a death struggle against an unlikely foe.
That unexpected challenger was Nebraska, a team predicted in a Big Ten coaches preseason poll to finish in the bottom half of their conference. The Cornhuskers, who have been nearly invisible on the national scene since Alex Gordon and Joba Chamberlain led them to their last CWS appearance in 2005, rose quickly to the top of the Big Ten, winning the regular season title in coach Will Bolt’s first full season, and became only the fourth team since 1999 to defeat the nation’s No. 1 seed in regional play when it stymied the Hogs 5-3 Sunday night. That game, fueled by some clutch hiting and a 14-out save by Spencer Schwellenbach, their all-everything shortstop and relief pitcher who was voted Big Ten Player of the Year, ended the Hogs’ 10-game winning streak and signaled Nebraska’s rise back to respectability.
The Huskers’ impressive season-ending run came up short Monday night, when Arkansas All-America reliever Kevin Kopps entered the game in the third inning and pretty much took down the Huskers by himself. Meanwhile, Nebraska’s own normally solid bullpen came apart with two out and nobody on base in the eighth inning of a tense 2-2 contest, the winner-take-all Game 7 of the Fayetteville Regional, allowing the 49-11 Razorbacks to score four runs on just one hit to pass a test that may prove to be their toughest of the season.
Nebraska was not an easy out for anyone in 2021, ending the season with a 34-14 record and their second Big Ten title in five years. The pity of it was that the Huskers were not allowed to test themselves against anyone outside their conference until postseason play began, due to a controversial decision made late in 2020, when the Big Ten made plain what had long been suspected, that it really doesn’t think highly at all of its softball and baseball teams. The Council of Presidents and Chancellors denied Big Ten teams the chance to build a decent RPI (which is a major consideration by the committee that selects the postseason regional baseball brackets) by voting to prohibit nonconference baseball and softball games, even though at the time of the vote, it was launching into a basketball season that featured numerous nonconference games. COP/C members never bothered to explain why they felt that basketball, which is played indoors with players constantly in close contact, was less likely to spread the COVID-19 virus than baseball, a naturally socially distanced sport played outdoors.
That politically contentious decision did not affect Arkansas, a member of the Southeastern Conference, which has pretty much plowed straight ahead with normal scheduling and stadiums filled with cheering fans since last fall’s football season. The Razorback baseball team, led by favorite son Dave Van Horn, has put together a squad that may be the school’s best of all time.
The majority of 2021 has been smooth sailing for the consensus No. 1-rated Razorbacks, whose “OmaHogs” sign in Baum-Walker Stadium symbolizes their intention to win their first-ever CWS title on what will be their 11th trip to Omaha if all goes well when they host their Super Regional against North Carolina State the weekend of June 12. Van Horn has coached Arkansas for 19 seasons after leading Nebraska to its first two CWS appearances in 2001 and 2002. The Hogs were one misplayed foul pop away from a CWS title in 2018, but could never recover, and the Oregon State Beavers snatched the trophy away from them. This year has been dedicated to erasing that still-painful memory.
To put it in perspective, Van Horn is the Razorbacks’ Tom Osborne, the 2018 near miss is his 1984 Orange Bowl, and this season, which featured an outright SEC regular-season title and a decisive undefeated romp through the SEC’s postseason tourney, is his answer to Osborne’s 1994 drive for redemption. Whereas Osborne earned his spurs with a dramatic victory on his main rival’s home field, Van Horn has just pulled off what may ultimately prove to be one of his biggest all-time wins on his own turf, at the expense of his protegee, although Bolt’s ascending Huskers came dangerously close to ruining that mission.
The Huskers defeated Northeastern 8-6 in their opener Friday behind a momentum-changing three-run homer by Cam Chick, then lost 5-1 to Arkansas on Saturday night before rebounding Sunday with a resounding 18-4 beatdown of New Jersey Institute of Technology and emerging from the losers’ bracket to stun Arkansas Sunday night.
Nebraska played well enough to win the majority of the 15 other regionals, but suffered the fate of being sent to Fayetteville to do battle with the consensus No. 1 team in the nation. Despite that built-in disadvantage, the blue collar Husker team reached heights not seen since its 2007 season, which was the last time Nebraska won more than a single game in a regional. This year, the Huskers won three, and stood face to face with the top team in the nation for 25 innings before falling.
It was a rare atmosphere for fans of Husker baseball, who had not seen their team in Game 7 of a regional since June 2003, when it fell to upstart Southwest Missouri State, which prevailed on the strength of pitcher Robert Zimmermann, who threw more than 140 pitches in a complete game five hit-shutout that stymied the 47-win Huskers.
Zimmermann, who was drafted by the Angels in the fourth round of the Major League Draft, never made it to the majors. That fate is unlikely to befall Kopps, who last week was named National Player of the Year by Collegiate Baseball and is legendary in Arkansas for the resiliency of his pitching arm which ironically, underwent Tommy John surgery less than four years ago. These days, Kopps and Van Horn are swimming against an overwhelming current of general managers, trainers and doctors who recommend that pitchers be coddled, not stretched to the limit — especially hurlers coming off a serious injury. Kopps pitched 72.2 innings in 30 appearances heading into regional play, where he stepped up to take on an even larger role, throwing more than 180 pitches in a single weekend.
Monday’s seven-inning, 90-pitch performance was his magnum opus, by far the longest of his career. He completely befuddled Husker batters, who could never solve his signature cutter, either Saturday night when he saved the Hogs’ 5-1 victory or Monday night despite getting multiple at bats against him. In Game 7, Kopps allowed no runs on three hits, striking out eight batters and walking none.
“The more I throw, the better I feel,” Kopps said after the game. His perfect 12-0 record with 11 saves is the main reason the Hogs are poised to achieve their greatest heights.
In a battle of the bullpens, Kopp did not crack. Nebraska finally did in the bottom of the eighth, when with two out and nobody on, Koty Frank lost a long battle to outfielder Christian Franklin, who fouled off four two-strike pitches during his marathon 10-pitch at-bat, which he finally won by drawing a walk. That seemed to unwind Frank, who had won the Huskers’ opener against Northeastern on Friday night with a steady performance in relief of All-Big Ten pitcher Cade Povich. Not this time. Frank, who had thrown only 30 pitches to that point, suddenly lost the strike zone completely, walking the next batter on four pitches and falling behind pinch hitter Charlie Welch. Bolt pulled Frank with the count at 2-0, bringing in Jake Bunz, who never came close to throwing an effective strike. He completed the walk to fill the bases, then spiked a pitch well in front of home plate that catcher Griffin Everitt never had a chance to block. The wild pitch gave the Razorbacks a hard-earned 3-2 lead, and the game was over at that moment, for all practical purposes, but Welch added an exclamation point when he blasted Bunz’s next offering far over the left field fence to create the final 6-2 margin.
The conventional thinking in the Husker camp was that a good start might nullify Kopp’s effectiveness, and for a couple of innings after he entered the game with two on and no out in the third, it appeared that might indeed be the case. Kopp allowed one of the runners to score, giving Nebraska a 2-0 lead, but he slammed the door at that point, never allowing it to crack open again while his teammates chipped away with a pair of solo home runs by Casey Opitz in the fifth and Robert Moore in the sixth to tie the game after Cornhusker senior Luke Roskam put Nebraska in front with a second-inning solo shot of his own, and Jaxson Hallmark drove home Mojo Hagge with a ground ball in the third, moments after Kopp entered the game.
That quick Monday night start, on the heels of a memorable Sunday night triumph, was the high-water mark for the Husker baseball seniors of 2021, who under the tutelage of Bolt, turned the program in the right direction.
Seniors Schwellenbach, Hallmark, Joe Acker, Mojo Hagge and Luke Roskam provided leadership that will long be remembered and admired. Povich, a junior who started Monday’s finale and finished with an 8-1 record and a 3.11 ERA, will soon decide whether or not he returns to play a major factor in the Huskers’ 2022 season. He seems likely to be a respectably high pick in the upcoming MLB Draft.
While paying honor to the Husker seniors, Povich seemed to leave the door open to the possibility of his return in his postgame comments.
“It’s been an honor to play with these guys and the ones who are moving on,” Povich said. “They are going to be missed, and I can’t thank them enough for everything that they’ve taught me. We’re not going anywhere, and I know coach Bolt and the rest of the staff and the guys coming back, everybody is gonna be there. This won’t be forgotten. This feeling won’t be forgotten. I think the only way for this team is up.“