Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
There's been significant activity across the Razorback athletics the past few days, so we'll start with two sports that haven't been given "Pearls" treatment before ending on well-trod ground.
As the men's basketball team sputters to a forgettable finish, Tom Collen extricated himself from what presumably was a scalding seat mere weeks ago, leading the women's squad to its 20th win on Sunday. Collen is by all accounts a competent, eminently likable coach, but his first four seasons in Fayetteville had yielded only two WNIT appearances and seemed to substantiate the notion that Arkansas simply couldn't crack the upper third of the SEC.
There still may be some veracity to that, as this year the league has softened. Tennessee no longer carries its usual cache but still ultimately rules the roost. Kentucky has quietly become a force, and Georgia has always been steady under the guidance of Andy Landers. Arkansas lost to all three of these teams en route to an 0-4 stumble out of the conference blocks, which seemingly doomed Collen. Even for a program that has never been a juggernaut, a run of five seasons without any NCAA tournament bids would have likely been too much for administration to brush aside.
Yet the Hogs almost instantly flipped the switch, pasting Auburn, LSU, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State by an average of 19 points to square up their league record at 4-4 and inject enthusiasm into the program. They followed that with four more wins before finally showing wear in a home loss to LSU, then rebounded by throttling Mississippi State a second time. Arkansas now sits at 20-6 and tied for fourth in the league standings with a 9-5 mark, though to the bewilderment of many, still unranked.
This resurgence probably earned Collen at least another year, and the squad has likely cleared the NCAA tournament hurdle already (although a win on the road at Tennessee this week would firm that up). Arkansas has veteran leadership and could parlay that into a nice stay in the tourney if it gets there, which would enhance the program's profile further for recruiting. Given how long the women's program has been dormant, a trip to the dance would certainly resuscitate interest from prep talent in Arkansas and abroad.
On the other side of Razorback Road and a little to the south, the baseball Hogs seized on their early opportunity to prove that gaudy preseason rankings were, in fact, very much warranted. The diamond Hogs pummeled Villanova in three straight games at Baum Stadium, racking up 41 runs and getting suffocating starting pitching.
Dave Van Horn's charmed run as head baseball coach has reached its 10th season, and fiendish consistency has been his hallmark. The Razorbacks have never won fewer than 34 games in any season and have won at least 13 SEC games each year since Van Horn took the reins of the program from Norm DeBriyn in 2003. They have been to the NCAA regionals every year and twice fought their way to Omaha (2004, 2009).
But that predictably stable performance has often masked team deficiencies. Van Horn's teams have never readily embraced much offensive discipline, striking out commonly and occasionally running into outs on the basepaths due to an aggressive approach. Pitching has almost always been a boon, with Dave Jorn being one of the best assistant coaches in America, capable of making hurlers with modest stuff into dependable weekend starters in the most unforgiving conference in the country. That said, the Hogs have historically found themselves wanting for a steady starter on Sundays, when a league series often hangs in the balance.
Against the Wildcats, junior ace DJ Baxendale flashed his standard-issue, MLB-caliber moxie over a quality five-inning scoreless stint. Ryne Stanek followed suit with dominant work Saturday, but the real revelation of the weekend may have been Barrett Astin's five innings of no-hit ball in the series finale. 'Nova (20-32 in 2011) hardly ranks among the nation's elite teams, hitting or otherwise, but the sophomore righty from Forrest City was so stifling that it appears the Hogs may have the lockdown guy they need at the end of the weekend rotation. The Hogs are flush with pitching depth, and now have weeks of friendly non-conference matchups to figure out which players will be capable of carrying a decidedly untested lineup.
Last things last: this year's post-Thanksgiving duel with LSU on the football field will officially transpire in the Ozarks rather than Midtown Little Rock. The long-rumored shift was unsurprising, and it elicited little outcry. Bygone debates about the virtues of having two home fields sway no one with a rudimentary grasp of economics. War Memorial Stadium still has its place as a gracious occasional host, but a game that has taken on national gravity belongs there no longer.
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