On the heels of back-to-back trips to the College World Series for the first time in program history, the 2020 season was poised to be a memorable one for the Arkansas Razorbacks and head coach Dave Van Horn.
Entering his 18th season at the helm of his alma mater, Van Horn and his staff had put together a strong mix of veterans and rising underclassmen set to defend the SEC Western Division crown and make another run at a trip to Omaha. His squad earned a bevy of preseason individual honors, selected as the preseason favorite to win its division, as well as a top-five ranking to begin the year.
A preseason vote by the team saw pitcher Kevin Kopps and catcher Casey Opitz earn recognition as captains for the 2020 campaign, but the leadership extended far beyond just that junior battery duo. The clubhouse also featured returning All-Americans in right fielder Heston Kjerstad and shortstop Casey Martin, another junior pair who had put up big numbers while donning the Cardinal & White, along with junior designated hitter Matt Goodheart and reliever Zebulon Vermillion. A strong mix from the returning sophomore class filled in several spots on the field in third baseman Jacob Nesbit, center fielder Christian Franklin, the top two starting pitching roles in Connor Noland & Patrick Wicklander and relievers Jacob Burton, Elijah Trest and several more.
Every year, a new crop of freshmen and transfers come to the Hill to build on an impressive core of talent, and 2020 was no exception. Left field featured JUCO transfer Brayden Webb, first baseman Cole Austin was set to be the oldest player on the team after coming to Arkansas as a grad transfer from Arizona State and he would be paired with the youngest player on the roster in 17-year-old mid-year enrollee Robert Moore.
The 2020 season began as good as Arkansas fans had hoped, sweeping both of the first two series against Eastern Illinois and Gonzaga for a 7-0 start. The Razorbacks picked up three wins over the Panthers on opening weekend, with Kjerstad turning in a monster performance, racking up seven hits in the series, five for extra bases, including a pair of two-homer games in the opener and finale, earning him SEC Co-Player of the Week and Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Week. It overshadowed a dominant showing on the mound by Noland in the season opener, which featured 6.2 innings of two-hit, one-run (unearned) ball with one walk and 11 strikeouts, making him one of six Razorbacks with 11 K’s or more since 2011, giving him SEC Pitcher of the Week accolades.
The following week was Moore’s time to shine and earn a couple awards. After recording one hit in the opening series against EIU, he returned to go 8-for-12 with a double, a homer, nine RBIs, four runs scored, four walks and two stolen bases against Gonzaga. He earned SEC Co-Player of the Week and Perfect Game National Player of the Week honors for his performance, helping the Hogs to a 4-0 sweep of the Bulldogs and a 7-0 record heading into the first road trip of the year.
Arkansas hit a little turbulence over the next five games, dropping all three games of the Shiners College Classic in Houston and five in-a-row, including three one-run contests. The Hogs rallied in game two against South Alabama with a 15-2 rout of the Jags, followed by a walk-off in the rubber match thanks to a two-run homer from Kjerstad in the bottom of the ninth to take the series. It was the first walk-off home run by a Razorback in exactly seven years.
The season wrapped up with a double midweek against Grand Canyon, with Arkansas controlling the opener, 6-1, thanks to freshman Will McEntire’s first start on the mound, going 6.0 innings with one run and no walks. The finale was a wild one, resulting in a 10-9 victory for the Hogs and featured six frames with crooked numbers on the scoreboard, as Arkansas built up a 10-5 lead and held off a four-run seventh with two scoreless innings at the end to head into SEC play at 11-5.
The March 11 finale was also a special one for Van Horn, as it signaled his 700th as head coach of the Razorbacks. It was the fastest his clubs had reached a 100-win milestone during his time at Arkansas. His club finished with a consensus top-15 ranking to end the shortened campaign, sending two to the draft in Heston Kjerstad (second overall) and Casey Martin (87th overall) via the Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies, respectively. Kjerstad’s pick is the second-highest in program history, behind Jeff King’s No.1 selection in 1986.