FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas Dick Howser Award winning pitcher Kevin Kopps wouldn’t have needed this special season to be special among his Razorbacks teammates.
They elected him a team captain three consecutive years.
Once as a fourth-year junior coming off Tommy John arm surgery, then as a fifth-year senior and finally as a granted by covid era sixth senior who wasn’t sure he was worthy to return.
They appreciated the pitcher exemplifying character through good times and bad long before he signed down to the last autograph request at Baum-Walker Stadium an hour after heartbreak.
Arkansas has lost, 3-2 to North Carolina State in the Super Regional championship game denying the nationally No. 1 SEC champion Razorbacks a berth in the College World Series.
The abbreviated 2020 season went badly for Kopps and his 8.18 earned run average before all spring sports were covid cancelled. He felt obligated to inquire pitching coach Matt Hobbs if he and head coach Dave Van Horn would rather him not return for the 2021 covid restored 2020 eligibility.
“It’s kind of weird looking back on the season,” Kopps said last Friday upon bestowed the Dick Howser Award as college baseball’s best player with his 12-1 record and 12 saves, nationally leading 0.90 earned run average with 131 strikeouts and only 18 walks for 89 1-3 innings.
“Starting off having a conversation with Coach Hobbs,” Kopps said. “Coach Hobbs thought it was stupid of me to ask. I’m really thankful for that.”
So are Hobbs and Van Horn.
“Such a great leader on and off the field,” Van Horn said. “His performance this year was something that I’ve never really witnessed. First off, him coming back from injury a couple of years ago to winning award after award. So dependable, great in the clubhouse. Just a pleasure to be around.”
Kopps credits his comeback to mastering the “cutter,” his out pitch that hitters couldn’t hit even when they knew it was coming, and with his diet that included a bounty of beets.
“I started to focus on recovery and what I put in my body a lot more,” Kopps said. “I kind of always had focused on that, but starting in the summer after that season I really started to thin myself out and get myself into a lot better shape and really focus on stamina for myself. Because its something I really struggled with after surgery. So I really pushed hard for that to make sure I was ready for the season.”
He was ready all right. Even threw a consecutive 28 scoreless innings coming out of the bullpen.
“From a coach’s perspective, we just knew that every time we put Kevin in there for a while, that nobody was scoring,” Van Horn said. “We would talk after the games amongst ourselves about how consistent he was and that we have so much confidence in him. Those are amazing numbers. You go five or six innings without giving up a run, that’s good, but you’re talking almost 30 innings and who knows how many different appearances that was because he was a reliever. It was amazing.”
Of so experiencing anyone repeating Kopps’ 2021 type phenomena, Van Horn said, “ I don’t know if we’ll ever witness this again.”
Nobody could have foreseen a supernatural season like for Kopps but Hobbs did forecast a great one.
“Before the season in one of my bullpens Coach Hobbs told me that I was going to be an All-American,” Kopps said. “ His belief in me and the confidence I got from that really helped me throughout the season.”
The belief Kopps inspired in teammates goes beyond belief. The admiration he inspired in opponents exceeds even that belief.
On a Sunday night after Saturday throwing two innings keeping North Carolina State in 6-5 range, Kopps in his season’s only start locked in a 2-2 tie with North Carolina State in the Super Regional winner goes to Omaha championship game.
On his 118th pitch in 90-degree heat, Kopps was tagged for Jose Torres, go-ahead, 3-2 home run leading off the ninth.
Those attending from North Carolina State of course went euphoric.
Yet amid their euphoria, they stopped, eyes respectfully on the mound and joining the Arkansas standing ovation for Kopps as Van Horn replaced him with relief.
Like Van Horn said, “don’t know if we’ll ever witness this again.”
Photos courtesy of Craven Whitlow, CW3, Sports Action