FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn doesn’t know exactly how long the team meeting lasted. It may have been an hour. It felt like more.
But sitting down to work through his team’s struggles needed to happen no matter how long it took. The Razorbacks had just gotten back from their rough road trip to Nebraska in mid-April and the disappointing results were a sign Arkansas desperately needed to hit the reset button on a season heading south.
So Van Horn didn’t waste any time and did it for them.
“I think it was really big that the players knew we weren’t upset with them, that we weren’t down on them,” Van Horn said, looking back on the meeting three weeks later. “We just had to keep building them up. Obviously, we were upset that we didn’t win, that we didn’t play better. But the fact is we had a big part of the season left, and we know our better days are in front of us, and we have confidence.”
It worked. Arkansas has responded since the struggles, going 7-2 to make its rough slide a thing of the past. The 11th-ranked Razorbacks (32-16, 15-8 in Southeastern Conference) will try to keep the success going at 6:35 p.m. tonight, when they open a three-game series against Tennessee (19-26, 6-16 in SEC) in Baum Stadium.
Arkansas has figured a way to squeeze out wins at an important time, working its way back into consideration for one of the NCAA’s 16 regional host sites. At the very least, the Razorbacks can take a step closer to securing their place as the No. 3 team in the SEC with the 10-team conference tournament approaching later this month.
Senior Matt Vinson believes the lengthy post-Nebraska chat had a lot to do with the turnaround. He described it as much needed with the Razorbacks in a “tough spot.”
“Everybody kind of opened up,” said Vinson, who is one of three team captains. “It wasn’t just the coaches talking, it was the players talking. It was just a big team bonding … just about staying the course. We’ve had teams in the past that have gone through that struggle. So just stay the course.
“We’re going to go through tough times, but eventually, it will be good in the end.”
Van Horn believes the tone of the team meeting was important.
The coaches didn’t want to berate players for their poor play. The goal, instead, was to give them hope as they tried to end a stretch in which the Hogs went 2-6.
“We knew that we had the potential to get to a regional, and win a regional, and advance,” Van Horn said. “I think probably the whole way back, they needed to hear that. They didn’t need to be beat down. We just talked. We talked about former teams, former players, and what we know this team can do if we just get it going a little bit. We have a good team. We have a bunch of good players and good people on our team that really care about the team and the program. And it’s been showing.”
It didn’t happen right away. In fact, Arkansas was even more disappointed about what happened in its next game. Texas A&M won the opening game of a three-game series at Baum Stadium thanks to a late-inning pinch-hit grand slam.
“Out of all the games I lost here, I really felt that one the hardest,” Vinson said.
But the Razorbacks regrouped and responded the next day with a 12-2 win, then won the series finale. Arkansas grabbed two more wins in a weather-shortened series at Georgia, beat Missouri State and won two straight to open at Kentucky.
“I think the biggest thing was how we came out the next day and just put it on them,” Arkansas reliever Trent Daniel said about Texas A&M win. “I think that said a lot about us. We could’ve easily just said are you serious? How does this keep happening to us? But we responded and won the series and I think it propelled us.”
The team meeting – or the recent success — hasn’t exactly cured Arkansas’ ailments.
A ninth-inning error cost the Razorbacks a chance to complete a three-game sweep at Kentucky last Saturday, although the defense has been much improved. Van Horn continues to scratch his head about to his team’s struggles at the plate, too.
Arkansas ranks 10th in the SEC in batting (.263), while four of their past seven wins have come even though the Razorbacks scored just two runs.
“We were going to be a .270-hitting team, hopefully, and we’re not there, which is disappointing,” Van Horn said. “Look at some the guys that aren’t hitting. They should be hitting — and they will. But they need to do it now. They don’t need to do it in minor league baseball. They need to do it now, and then take it over there.”
But Van Horn sees a difference in the way his team is playing after what he described as a “good meeting” after the Nebraska series. Daniel believes it has Arkansas in a good place as it inches closer to the end of the regular season.
“We got re-energized from it and refocused,” Daniel said about the impact of the meeting. “You can tell. Since that Nebraska trip we’ve played really good baseball.”
Tennessee (19-26, 6-16 in SEC) at No. 11 Arkansas (32-16, 15-8 in SEC)
When: Friday at 6:35 p.m., Saturday at 6:05 p.m., Sunday at 1:05 p.m.
Where: Baum Stadium
TV: Saturday, Sunday – Cox Sports Television
Radio: Razorback Sports Network
Starting Pitchers: Arkansas — RHP Barrett Astin (4-2, 1.98 ERA), RHP Ryne Stanek (6-2, 1.87 ERA); LHP Randall Fant (4-1, 2.27 ERA); Tennessee — RHP Zack Godley (3-6, 3.49 ERA), RHP Nick Williams (2-3, 4.94 ERA), RHP Aaron Quillen (2-3, 6.04 ERA)
Top Hitters: Arkansas —Brian Anderson (.323, 3 HR, 28 RBI), Jacob Mahan (.299, 2 HR, 19 RBI), Matt Vinson (.298, HR, 20 RBI), Joe Serrano (.288, HR, 16 RBI), Tyler Spoon (.286, 4 HR, 42 RBI); Tennessee — Scott Price (.350, 2 HR, 23 RBI), Will Maddox (.348, 8 2B, 20 RBI), Vincent Jackson (.294, HR, 22 RBI), Christin Stewart (.293, 3 HR, 24 RBI)