FAYETTEVILLE – The SEC’s Best of the West and Beast of the East collide in a 3-game SEC series starting tonight in Knoxville, Tenn.
The Arkansas Razorbacks at 17-7 best in the SEC West by a game ahead of 16-8 Mississippi Statre and deemed the best anywhere nationally ranked No. 1 and sporting a 37-9 record, and the nationally fourth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers, 38-11 and at 17-7 leading the SEC East by a half-game over 16-7 Vanderbilt, and (CDT) meet at 5:30 tonight, 11 .m. Saturday and noon Sunday at Tennessee’s Lindsey Nelson Stadium.
Saturday’s game will be televised by the SEC Network. Friday and Sunday games Internet video on SEC+ while the Razorbacks’ radio network broadcasts all three games.
Though in Knoxville, it’s like old home week for Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn.
Under Van Horn, Tennessee Coach Tony Vitello was Arkansas’ hitting coach and recruiting coordinator from 2014-2017.
Tennessee hitting coach Josh Elander was an Arkansas volunteer coach in 2017. Luke Bonfield, lettering as a Vitello recruited outfielder/designated hitter for Van Horn from 2015-2018, is Vitello’s Tennessee graduate assistant.
All are closely rooted to Van Horn’s coaching tree.
The tree sprouts a forest worth of branches.
Van Horn has head coached five schools since 1989.
“I follow their program and they follow ours,” Van Horn said. “I’m excited for them and what they’ve done. We want to win, but I’m happy for those guys that they are having success.”
Senior catcher Tony Opitz is the last remaining Razorbacks impacted by Vitello as a recruiter.
“Definitely when Tony was here he did a great job recruiting,” Van Horn said, citing the gist of the Hogs 2018 and 2019 College World Series teams. “That’s one reason you get a job like that at Tennessee.”
Given the Vols languished 7-21 in the SEC the year before Vitello’s arrival, he’s obviously recruited and coached well in Knoxville.
He did it exemplifying some sound Van Horn advice.
“What I told him was to just go in there and work,” Van Horn said. “Don’t talk about the former coach’s players that are still in the program. The ones that are good enough are still going to be there and go get your own, mix them together and you’re going to have a good team. That’s what they got. It doesn’t surprise me.”
What the Vols have include a leadoff man, shortstop Liam Spence, hitting .389 while third baseman Jake Rucker hits .342 with seven home runs and 46 RBI.
The Vols hit .282 as a team and have nicely blended power, speed and experience.
“They have an older team,” Van Horn said. “Very athletic. They like to steal bags. But they’ve started hitting the ball out of the park the last few weeks and that’s been a big part of their offense.”
Tennessee right-handers Blade Tidwell 6-2, 3.21 earned run average and Chad Dallas, 8-1, 3.86, and lefty Will Heflin, 2-2, 4.12, start SEC weekends.
“Their pitchers throw a lot of strikes,” Van Horn said. “They’ve been really good at home. They’ve been good everywhere, obviously, so they’re well-coached, they’re hard-nosed, they’re on a mission.”
Obviously the Hogs are on a mission, sweeping three from Mississippi State back in March and winning 2 of 3 the rest of their total eight SEC series.
They’ve had to rely heavily on reliever Kevin Kopps, 7-0, seven saves and 0.72 ERA, to win those series.
Last weekend Kopps Friday recorded a three-innings save following winning starter Patrick Wicklander and situational reliever Caden Monke in the 3-0 decision over Georgia followed Sunday by Kopps pitching the final 4 1-3 innings to win 5-3.
To ease the load on Kopps and the bullpen, Van Horn needs Saturday starter Peyton Pallette lasting longer than into the fifth inning, his exit his last two starts, and gleaning a Sunday not starting in deficit like recent Sundays.
In Tuesday’s 8-4 nonconference victory over Arkansas State, with ASU , down 8-1 before scoring three unearned runs in the eighth, Van Horn was encouraged in the scoreless work of Jaxon Wiggins and Lael Lockhart, two innings each, Connor Noland, Heston Tole and Kole Ramage, one inning each, and Zebulon Vermillion, retiring the one batter he faced.
Some combination of that crew might be asked Sunday to start something that Monke and Kopps could finish.
Who starts Sunday will depend some on who hasn’t already relieved.
“If we need Wiggins to close a game or Lockhart, Noland or Vermillion, we’re going to take it one game at a time,” Van Horn said. “We’ve only got six games (this series and the May 20-22 series with Florida at Baum-Walker Stadium) left against two really good teams. Every win is precious and we’ll try and get them.”