By Nate Allen
FAYETTEVILLE – As a New England accented David against an Arkansas Razorbacks baseball Goliath, the Central Connecticut State Blue Devils seem at the crossroads of two choices.
The unheralded 30-21 Northeast Conference Tournament champion seeded fourth of four baseball teams in the Fayetteville Regional could approach today’s 1 p.m. game at Arkansas’ Baum-Walker Stadium feeling already lost or with nothing to lose.
It seems CCSU Coach Charlie Hickey chooses infusing nothing to lose and experience to gain for his Blue Devils vs. Coach Dave Van Horn’s 41-17 SEC West co-champion Razorbacks.
Arkansas reigns the top seed of this 4-team double-elimination regional and is nationally seeded fifth among the 64 teams at this week’s 16 4-team regionals dying to pare to 16 for next weekend’s Super Regionals in turn paring to the Elite Eight that will play for the second-seeded California Golden Bears, 32-18, of the Pac 12 and the third-seeded TCU Horned Frogs, only 32-26 but heating up in the tough Big 12 to be a Big 12 Tournament finalist losing the championship game, 7-6 in 10 innings to 11th-ranked Oklahoma State, meet at 6 tonight.
Saturday’s slate marks a noon loser’s bracket game and 6 p.m. winner’s bracket game leading into Sunday’s 2 p.m. loser’s bracket final and 8 p.m. championship game and, if necessary, a 6 p.m. winner take all Monday championship game.
Odds that the Blue Devils will be still playing Sunday night are slim, but Hickey is telling his squad that has braved wintry weather and small crowds throughout most of the spring to enjoy the pageantry of the big time atmosphere awaiting at Baum-Walker and the Southern hospitality.
“It’s a beautiful ballpark and It’s nice to get out of the New England weather and get down here,” Hickey said Thursday after the Blue Devils practiced at Baum-Walker. “It’s what I expected, but it’s always fun when you come to a great environment.”
Hickey exudes more respect than trepidation about playing Arkansas.
“One of the benefits of winning a conference championship and all the accolades you get with it, you then get the pleasure of playing the fifth-ranked team in the country in front of 10,000 people,” Hickey said. “We’re going to enjoy it, this whole experience.”
How do you prepare for an on paper mismatch?
“You just try to enjoy what we’ve accomplished getting here,” Hickey said. “This is supposed to be fun and I’m going to keep preaching that to them. The one thing I do try to stress is that we play well, that’s all you can hope. You can’t control everything else. The talent level is going to be higher than we’ve ever played and that’s okay. We’re going to make this a positive weekend in Fayetteville.”
While obviously not against a SEC team, the Blue Devils overcame a big obstacle to get here. The 2019 regular season Northeast Conference champion Bryant Bulldogs, the same Bryant Bulldogs who upset Van Horn’s Razorbacks opening the 2011 Manhattan (Kan.) Regional, clobbered CCSU, 16-4, 15-4 and 7-2 at the Blue Devils’ New Britain, Ct. home and won their first NEC Tournament game but the Blue Devils rose from the loser’s bracket to beat Bryant 3-1 and 3-2 and claim the league’s lone postseason berth.
“We played some very good baseball against a very good team,” Hickey said. “Not many people would hear a lot about schools up North. I know you guys have a little history with Bryant because they knocked off Arkansas five or six years ago. They had 40 wins and they were a very good program. But, we were better last weekend.”
Hickey has relied on right-handers Brandon Fox, a junior, 3-5, 3.95 ERA, and seniors Tom Curtin 5-3, 3.96 and Patrick Mitchell 6-3, 3.96 and Patrick Mitchell 6-3, 4.58 for starters, right-hander senior right-hander Mike Appel, 6-0, 2.31 for middle and some, three, saves late relief, and mostly senior lefty Jared Gallagher, 3-0, 1.72, nine saves, as the closer.
Fox will start.
“He’s had a very solid season,” Hickey said. “Brandon is actually a senior academically who graduate, but he has another year of eligibility. When he pitches next year, he’s going to have the experience of pitching tomorrow.”
Fox was asked if he’s pitched against the talented likes of an Arkansas.
“No,” Fox said. “Honestly, I can say I haven’t.”
However the Hogs’ once .311 team batting average dipped to .299 after 5-hit in all three SEC Tournament games.
“ I know they’ve been struggling, but this is a regional in their home ballpark,” Fox said. “So I’m not going to expect them to continue to struggle. I know they’re going to come out with a lot of energy but I’m going to stick to my plan no matter who it is.”
Spoken like what Connor Noland, the Arkansas freshman right-hander from Greenwood starting against the Blue Devils, said he was told of CCSU.
“That’s what I’ve heard that they are really scrappy and get after it and play a lot of hard-nosed ball,” Fox said. “That’s the vibe we are getting from them right now.”