FAYETTEVILLE — Dave Van Horn doesn’t have any regrets about 2013.
After looking back at the disappointing end to the season, which began with lofty expectations and a preseason No. 1 ranking, the Arkansas coach did concede some things he might have changed a few years ago.
“I guess hindsight is always 20-20, but maybe I would have changed it back a year and a half where I recruited another guy or two at a certain position and maybe not put quite as much scholarship into pitching and have a little more firepower,” Van Horn said last week. “Maybe put a couple of the freshmen into the lineup earlier, but it always takes time to see how they develop mentally and if they can handle it. …
“The disappointing part is we are still not playing because we expect to be playing.”
Van Horn took one last look back at 2013 during a season-ending press conference last Thursday. The Razorbacks finished 39-22 and 18-11 in the Southeastern Conference, failing to muster the same magic of the 2012 team that leaned on its pitching to move one win shy of the College World Series’ championship series.
Instead, Arkansas’ season ended much earlier with a 4-3 loss to Kansas State in the Manhattan (Kan.) Regional on Sunday night. The Wildcats advanced to play in a best-of-three super regional at No. 3 national seed Oregon State.
“We were a little disappointed after being ranked No. 1 preseason and struggling a little bit,” Arkansas closer Colby Suggs said about the end of the season last week. “It kind of hurt a little bit. But at the same time we did the best we could and we played with our hearts on our sleeves every single game of the year.
“Do I like the way it ended? No. But sometimes that’s the way it goes.”
It’s no secret Arkansas had the pitching to get back to Omaha with a staff that produced remarkable numbers. The Razorbacks finished with a 1.89 earned run average, becoming the first team to finish with a sub-2.00 ERA since 1992.
It also was the lowest ERA for a staff since Connecticut posted a 1.xx in 1976.
But the defense and hitting couldn’t match it. Arkansas was error-prone early in the season, which played a hand in some early losses. The Razorbacks also hit .260 and struggled to score, posting three or fewer runs in 31 of their 61 games.
The most costly proved to come in the NCAA Tournament opener. Arkansas managed only three hits and endured other problems at the plate during a 3-1 loss to Bryant. It put the Hogs in a hole they couldn’t climb out of the rest of the week.
“It's been a real grind with this team just because of the struggle to score runs," Van Horn said. "I think the hitters felt a lot of pressure with such a good pitching staff. We kind of knew it was going to happen. When we lost Matt Reynolds and those two middle infielders last year, we just knew we had to fill some holes. We were hoping a couple of underclassmen would put it together and have special years.
“Every year you look back and say if we'd have had one more guy here or there, it would have been different."
Van Horn is hoping that will change in 2014. It’s a safe assumption Arkansas won’t be as good on the mound with veterans like Suggs, Ryne Stanek and Barrett Astin expected to move on to professional baseball. The three were selected in the top three rounds of the Major League Baseball Draft, which concluded Saturday.
So more production from the offense will be critical. The good news: Arkansas’ 2014 leadership will come from a group of young hitters — Brian Anderson, Tyler Spoon and Joe Serrano — who showed promise in their first full seasons in the lineup.
Van Horn pointed to Anderson in particular. The sophomore was one of the top hitters in conference games and finished with a team-leading .xxx batting average.
“I really love his development,” Van Horn said. “He gets better and that’s what you want to see with guys. You could see it as a freshman he was pretty good, a skinny guy that could run a little bit and swing the bat.
“This year he took off and proved he could be the marquee offensive guy.”
Arkansas’ pitching staff won’t be void of talent despite the departures.
Jalen Beeks, who struggled in his first NCAA Tournament, should be one of the top pitchers returning. Michael Gunn and Chris Oliver showed promise in relief roles as well. Van Horn believes he has two potential starters in Trey Killian and Colin Poche, who didn’t get much time on the mound during Arkansas’ postseason.
“Those guys, they’re going to be big for the team next year and for the next year,” Astin said. “Poche is a good lefty who has a really good arm and has a chance to be somebody special here at the university. And Trey Killian, we all know who he is. He’s a competitor. He’s a good pitcher. I think him and Poche will probably be in the rotation somewhere next year. They’ll do big things here.”
Arkansas also feels good about a freshman class that wasn’t hit too hard by the draft.
The Razorbacks weren’t counting on pitcher Teddy Stankiewicz (second-round pick) or catcher Jon Denney (third-round pick) to make it to campus. But others like pitcher Dominic Taccolini and outfielder Andrew Benintendi should arrive.
Van Horn predicted the Razorbacks will be expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the SEC next season because of the roster turnover.
In addition to the pitchers turning pro, Arkansas will also lose lineup regulars like Dominic Ficociello, Matt Vinson, Jacob Mahan. But Astin said the reloading was similar to 2011, when Arkansas was in contention to host an NCAA Regional despite leaning on several young players to produce.
“It’s one of the best programs in the country with the greatest coaches in the country. They're going to be fine,” Astin said. “This is a great program. There are a lot of great players here that already are in the program, and there are a lot of great ones coming in. They'll be fine and they'll compete for a national title every year.”
Van Horn hopes it proves true. Arkansas has reached an NCAA Regional in 11 straight seasons under Van Horn. He has guided teams into the NCAA Tournament in 15 straight seasons, dating back to his final four years at Nebraska.
He doesn’t plan to fall short of that goal in 2014.
“I wouldn't know what to do if I was at home during a regional weekend,” Van Horn said. “I'd probably go nuts. Our expectation is to always get to a regional. If you get to a regional, even with a young team, you have a chance.”