FAYETTEVILLE – On the 118th pitch of his season’s first start, Arkansas SEC Pitcher of the Year All-American to be senior relief pitcher Kevin Kopps was tagged for the ninth-inning, North Carolina State home run ending his and the Razorbacks’ magnificent season.
Jose Torres’ leadoff ninth-inning home run over left snapped a 2-2 tie for the Wolfpack’s 3-2 Fayetteville Super Regional championship victory Sunday before the Razorbacks’ seventh consecutive 11,084 Fayetteville Regional and Fayetteville full house at Baum-Walker Stadium.
North Carolina State’s victory advances Coach Elliott Avent’s nationally 16th-ranked 35-18 ACC runner-up Wolfpack/Ruston Regional champion among the Elite Eight playing for the national championship at the College World Series in Omaha.
It ends the season for Coach Dave Van Horn’s nationally No. 1 seeded SEC/SEC Tournament//Fayetteville champions nationally ranked No. 1 the bulk of the season now concluded 50-13.
Kopps, already named National Player of the Year by the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper and a finalist for several national awards under consideration, finished 12-1 with 11 saves. He won for saved Arkansas three victories previously in the Fayetteville Regional and had thrown 21 pitches covering the final two scoreless innings of Saturday’s 6-5 loss charged to long reliever Ryan Costeiu.
Arkansas romped, 21-2 with 17 hits including four home runs in Friday night’s opener of the only 3-game series that Arkansas didn’t win at least two games all season.
Veteran North Carolina State Coach Avent said the Wolfpack didn’t advance Sunday to Omaha beating Kopps, just maybe outlasting him.
“You don’t really beat a guy like Kevin Kopps,” Avent said. “You might outlast him, but I’m not going to say anything about beating Kevin Kopps. That’s one of the great pitchers and one of the great performances I’ve ever seen. He is everything that’s advertised. You don’t beat guys like him. You might scratch one out.”
Classy to the last, Kopps signed autographs and talked with the final fans standing post his heartbreaking finish.
“Kevin Kopps is an amazing pitcher, an amazing human being,” Van Horn said. “He really wanted the ball today. He talked to us last night about it after the game.”
Van Horn said he and pitching coach Matt Hobbs figured since they would relieve with Kopps early anyway why not start him if he felt comfortable doing it?
“Coach Hobbs just asked me if I wanted to start,” Kopps said. “He just said I had earned the right I guess to tell them yes or no. Yeah, my career and my teammates on the line of course I wanted the ball.”
For most Arkansas’ games, Kopps wins with his Sunday performance scattering seven hits with nine strikeouts against three walks.
But Jonny Butler’s 2-run, third-inning home run, two batters after a walk and just above leaping center fielder Christian Franklin, and Torres’ solo home run sufficed with Arkansas held to four hits for a second consecutive day.
“We just didn’t do much offensively,” Van Horn said. “We got four hits and hit two or three or four other balls hard. They were at people, but we just couldn’t get that big hit to put us over the top really the last couple of days.”
Credit Wolfpack right-handed starter Matt Willadsen and lefty relievers Chris Villamen and Evan Justice, Van Horn said.
Justice was Sunday’s winner pitching a scoreless eighth and ninth after Saturday throwing 48 pitches saving the 6-5 victory for Wolfpack starter Sam Highfill.
Charlie Welch’s second-inning double, scoring Franklin who led off reaching on an error, accounted for the lone run off Willadsen. Willadsen finished the second stranding the bases loaded, stranded a runner at second in the third and stranded first and second in the fourth.
Villamen, pitched the fifth through seventh allowing hits only to freshman outfielder Cayden Wallace of Greenbrier. Wallace was stranded upon singling leading off the fifth but couldn’t be stopped with his game-tying solo homer with one out in the seventh.
Arkansas’ crowd went euphoric until Torres cut loose on Kopps’ ninth inning cutter.
Patrick Wicklander, Arkansas’ Friday winning starter, finished the N.C. State ninth before Justice finished the Hogs 1-2-3.
“Really you’ve just got to give North Carolina State credit,” Van Horn said. “They played great. They got big hits and their pitchers did a great job. They really, the two lefties today who finished up the game and the starter kept us off balance.”