Thursday, February 14, 2013 3:52 am
Arkansas baseball eyes return to Omaha
By KURT VOIGTAP Sports Writer
Ficociello, a two-sport standout in Fullerton, Calif., was committed at the time to play baseball at Oregon along with a handful of friends and teammates. However, the lure of something new, something "eye-opening," something "life-changing" was too much to pass up.
The infielder decided that night to change his commitment to Arkansas, where college baseball has evolved from cult following to die-hard religion over the last decade. Ficociello chose a state where the Razorbacks rule, as opposed to his native California where programs compete for attention almost as much as they compete on the field.
"I realized I'd never forgive myself if I didn't come out here and experience the (Southeastern Conference), the Razorbacks and what's it's like to play in a stadium like (Baum Stadium)," Ficociello said.
It's a decision Ficociello hasn't regretted in the slightest since that night, one he reveled in last summer as Arkansas reached the College World Series for the seventh time and came within one win of the championship series against eventual champion Arizona.
Now he's hopeful the Razorbacks - ranked No. 1 in three preseason polls and armed with one of the top pitching staffs in the country - are ready to take that next step and win the school's first national championship. Ficociello said anything less than Omaha is "absolutely not" acceptable this season.
"We want to make it to Omaha, but we've already done that," Ficociello said. "A lot of guys on this team were there last year. We want to take it a step further now and get ourselves a ring with a big No. 1 on it."
Arkansas' lofty hopes this season begin with a pitching staff that fashioned a 2.83 ERA last season, fifth-best in the country and the lowest for the school since 1976. It's a staff that returns much of its top talent this season, including right-hander Ryne Stanek.
Stanek was 8-4 last season with a 2.82 ERA in 17 starts and is expected to be one of the top picks in June's Major League Baseball draft. While the junior will anchor the rotation, he should have plenty of help from Barrett Astin (1.99 ERA in 58 2/3 innings last season) and Randall Fant (3.27 ERA).
Also, junior Colby Suggs returns after posting a 1.38 ERA in 39 innings last season and several other top freshmen are expected to compete for innings.
"It's just as good as last year and has the potential to be better than last year," junior catcher Jake Wise said of the staff.
Dig past the arsenal of arms, however, and you'll find the Razorbacks' hopes truly begin with veteran coach Dave Van Horn - much as they have since he was hired before the 2003 season. Arkansas has reached the NCAA tournament in all 10 of its seasons under the former Nebraska coach, reaching the College World Series for the third time last season under his watch.
Van Horn's secret to success is anything but a secret to those who know him best. He demands accountability - from batters, pitchers and coaches - on each and every pitch.
That includes practices, where Stanek said even the small details such as a missed bunt defense can lead to the attention of several coaches and a missed strike results in a lap of running.
"(Van Horn's) an intense coach and gets everybody to play their best," Stanek said. "You learn, quickly. It's a lot easier to play the games than be out there at practice every day."
The Razorbacks averaged 1,399 fans per game in 2002, the season before Van Horn's arrival. Since that time, Baum Stadium has turned into one of the top venues in the country - hosting an average of 7,893 fans per game last season.
"It's an unbelievable feeling playing here and having 8,000 cheer you on," Stanek said. "Especially in college baseball, where not a lot of schools get that."
Arkansas' attendance was second in the country behind LSU, one spot ahead of 2010-11 champion South Carolina. Mississippi rounded out the all-SEC top four in attendance, and Mississippi State gave the conference five of the top six in the country.
It's that kind of passion that has Van Horn wary of the rest of the power-packed conference, which boasts five teams in Baseball America's top 10. He's also focused more on the grind of the regular season than the preseason hype, a point he has made time and again to the Razorbacks.
"Our guys are grounded," Van Horn said. "They know what's up."
What Van Horn also hopes is up this season is an offense that was 170th in the country in runs per game (5.2) last season. That hope is fueled by an offense that Van Horn said is deeper overall this season, one led by Ficociello - who is switching from first base to second after hitting .311 in his first two seasons.
While the offense remains a question mark, one thing is certain for Arkansas. It feels as though its time has come to sit atop college baseball. And Van Horn and the rest of the Razorbacks would just assume that time came sooner rather than later.
"That desire will be there until we win one," Van Horn said. "... It's there for me personally, for our whole staff.
"It's not something we sit around and dwell on. We just work toward getting to the end, but we have a long way to go before that opportunity will be there."