FAYETTEVILLE – Dave Van Horn doesn’t minimize his Razorbacks losing ace junior pitcher Peyton Pallette of Benton for the season following Tommy John arm surgery.
But he’s far from ready to call it year before it begins for his reigning SEC champion/SEC Tournament champion Razorbacks adorning high status in the various preseason polls.
“Obviously we lost Peyton Pallette, who we had counted on to start whether it was Friday, Saturday or Sunday,” Van Horn said of the typical SEC weekend.
Something old and something may be the keys to rearming the Razorbacks now losing Pallette and graduating Golden Spikes winning pitcher Kevin Kopps to the pros.
Connor Noland, a freshman All-American on Arkansas’ national runner-up 2019 Razorbacks but injured most of last season but looking healthy in fall ball, and precocious freshman lefty Hagen Smith have emerged since fall ball and the January practices leading into the season-opening Feb. 18-20 3-game series with Illinois State at Baum-Walker Stadium.
“Connor Noland has been here and can pick up where he left off in the fall,” Van Horn said. “He’s throwing the ball harder and he’s throwing just as many strikes. A lot of times if you pitch at 90 and you’re trying to throw 92-93, you’re not going to throw the ball where you want it. Well now he’s throwing the ball 92-93, 91. Last year, probably 88-91, maybe a little more here and there. It just seems easy for him to throw 91-92 with sink, keeping the ball down.”
“Freshman Hagen Smith has done a tremendous job,” Van Horn said. “He’s one of the youngest guys on the team. Maybe the youngest player on the team. I think he turned 18 in August. Like, August 19th he turned 18 years old. And then he came out and pitched like he was 22. It was really impressive.”
Sophomore Jaxon Wiggins, the hardest thrower on last year’s team and the 4-saves closer at last season’s outset until Kopps’ emergence, became exposed as a one-pitch pony with a 5.09 ERA by season’s end.
He’s got some alternatives now other than approaching 100 miles per hour with his fastball.
“Jaxon Wiggins developed a breaking ball and a slider,” Van Horn said. “His changeup has gotten better. I think that he’s got something to prove, and hopefully he’ll do it. There are a couple of other guys. There are a couple of freshmen that have a shot.
We have a lot of good arms. We just have to figure out how to use them.”
Returning veterans Zebulon Vermillion, Elijah Trest, Kole Ramage and Evan Gray all have posted some good moments past.
Cabot’s Zack Morris has a new look.
“Zack Morris has changed his delivery,” Van Horn said. “Shortened his arm stroke, his stride. He’s throwing the ball a lot more consistent. The shorter stride is making the arm slot shorter. Gives you a chance to repeat your delivery. I feel like he’s got a chance to help us a lot more. Evan Gray was really good two years ago. Last year he didn’t figure in as much. He’s come back a lot better, and he’s throwing the ball well.”
Van Horn also cited Mark Adamiak, a third-year sophomore right-hander redshirted last year, and left-hander Nick Griffin of Monticello, redshirted as an injured freshman requiring arm surgery in 2021.
“He (Griffin) walked in the door with a torn elbow last year,” Van Horn said. He had it fixed and got better. His arm slot is better than it was before surgery. He’s throwing 93, 94 miles an hour. He’s thrown live to hitters twice inside and looked great in one inning. So we’ll see if we can build him up. This is a guy that out of high school we saw him as a conference starter here in the future. Maybe he can be a wild card for us, because his stuff is good.”
When it comes to pitching, Van Horn believes every SEC team arrives armed and dangerous.
“The pitching in our league, the velocity in our league, the stuff in our league is incredible,” Van Horn said. “The average fastball in the SEC over the last few years is not even a mile an hour less than what the average fastball is in the big leagues. Like the average fastball in the big leagues may be like 93.3 and in the SEC it’s like 92.5. In other leagues the average is 89.7, 90.2. It’s a big difference.”