FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ baseball team will open as a top-10 team for the fifth time in the past six seasons.
The Razorbacks are ranked sixth in the USA Today Baseball Coaches Poll that was released Thursday. The coaches poll is the poll of record for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Arkansas also began the 2018 season and each of the previous three seasons in the top 10 of the coaches poll. The outlier was the 2019 season when the Razorbacks were ranked 12th.
The preseason poll is the coaches’ 77th consecutive poll to include Arkansas, dating to 2017. The Razorbacks had been ranked in the top 10 of 30 consecutive polls before falling to 13th in the final poll of the 2022 regular season.
Coaches ranked Arkansas third in their final poll last year after the Razorbacks played in a national semifinal at the College World Series.
Arkansas returns 11 players who were on the roster last postseason, including starting position players Brady Slavens and Peyton Stovall, and six pitchers — right-handers Jaxon Wiggins, Will McEntire, Brady Tygart and Austin Ledbetter, and left-handers Hagen Smith and Zack Morris — who took the mound at the College World Series.
“There are a lot of questions still to be answered, but the talent is there, especially on the mound,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said last week. “I’d say (the pitching staff) is a little more experienced there with Division I game time and in tough situations, guys that have been through it a little bit.”
The Razorbacks signed several transfers during the offseason who are expected to play major roles this year. Among the most notable transfers are outfielders Jared Wegner of Creighton and Tavian Josenberger of Kansas; third baseman Caleb Cali of the College of Central Florida; shortstops Harold Coll of San Jacinto (Texas) College and John Bolton of Austin Peay; catcher Hudson Polk of Oklahoma; and pitchers Cody Adcock of Crowder (Mo.) College and Koty Frank of Nebraska on the right side, and left-hander Hunter Hollan from San Jacinto.
The Razorbacks are one of seven SEC teams ranked in the preseason poll. LSU is the top-ranked team, followed by SEC teams Tennessee (2), Texas A&M (4), Florida (5), Ole Miss (7) and Vanderbilt (9).
“The SEC is unbelievable this year and it’s old,” Van Horn said. “There are four or five teams in our division that are ranked way up there and are very experienced…so it’s going to be an exciting year.”
Arkansas has been ranked highly in every major preseason poll this year. In addition to the coaches poll, the Razorbacks are ranked fourth by Perfect Game, sixth by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, seventh by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, eighth by D1Baseball and 11th by Baseball America.
USA Today Baseball Coaches Poll, 2023 Preseason
Rank. Team (Points)
1. LSU (764)
2. Tennessee (741)
3. Stanford (687)
4. Texas A&M (610)
5. Florida (570)
6. Arkansas (569)
7. Ole Miss (546)
8. Oklahoma State (509)
9. Vanderbilt (501)
10. Wake Forest (497)
11. Louisville (393)
12. North Carolina (369)
13. East Carolina (355)
14. Maryland (331)
15. UCLA (330)
16. Virginia Tech (314)
17. TCU (284)
18. Miami (246)
19. Southern Miss (242)
20. Virginia (199)
21. Texas Tech (137)
22. North Carolina State (131)
23. Oregon State (110)
24. Texas (104)
25. Oregon (74)
Others Receiving Votes: Auburn (72), Alabama (58), Oklahoma (41), UC Santa Barbara (40), Florida State (32), South Carolina (29), Connecticut (29), Georgia Tech (24), Rutgers (22), Notre Dame (19), Clemson (15), Arizona (13), Mississippi State (12), Texas State (8), Rice (6), Gonzaga (6), Georgia (6), Duke (6), Dallas Baptist (6), Charlotte (4), Wofford (3), Georgia Southern (3), San Diego (2), Louisiana Tech (2), Coastal Carolina (2), Campbell (2)
Arkansas is scheduled to play five SEC teams ranked in the preseason coaches poll — at LSU, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, and at home against Tennessee and Texas A&M.
The Razorbacks are scheduled to open the season with non-conference games against three Big 12 teams ranked in the poll. Arkansas will play No. 24 Texas, No. 17 TCU and No. 8 Oklahoma State in succession at the College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas, on Feb. 17-19.
TCU and Oklahoma State are predicted first and second, respectively, and Texas is picked fourth in the Big 12, according to a preseason poll of coaches in that conference.
But the Razorbacks’ tough non-conference schedule extends beyond the three games against Big 12 teams. Arkansas will play seven teams this season, including Tennessee, that won either a regular-season or conference tournament championship last year. Other reigning conference champions on the schedule are Louisiana Tech (Conference USA tournament), UNLV (Mountain West regular season), Wright State (Horizon League regular season and tournament), Missouri State (Missouri Valley tournament), Southeast Missouri State (Ohio Valley tournament), Army (Patriot League regular season and tournament) and Lipscomb (ASUN regular season).
The Razorbacks’ 55-game schedule includes 44 games against teams in D1Baseball’s recent ranking of the 100 best programs in college baseball.
“We were trying to schedule RPI situations a little better,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “The more non-conference games you can find, and you win them against teams that obviously are in the top 100 or top 50, or they have a winning record in their league or winning record overall — that’s how they add all that up. It helps you.”
Arkansas’ RPI was hurt last season — and potentially cost the Razorbacks a chance to host an NCAA regional — by its non-conference schedule, in particular eight games against the other in-state Division I teams — Arkansas State, Central Arkansas, Arkansas-Little Rock and Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
More from WholeHogSports: Arkansas’ 2023 Baseball Schedule
The Razorbacks have lowered their number of games against in-state teams to four this year. Arkansas will play UALR twice, and once against Arkansas State and UCA. All four games will be played in Fayetteville.
“Last year we won our non-conference games, but the teams that we played didn’t do very well, so it didn’t help us,” Van Horn said. “We had a good team last year, but RPI wasn’t very good. And we had a pretty good record in the league as well. It helped us, but it didn’t really, really help us.”
Van Horn likens this year’s schedule more to 2021 when the Razorbacks defeated several NCAA Tournament teams in non-conference play, won the SEC regular-season and tournament championships, and had the nation’s No. 1 RPI at the end of the season.
“A lot of the non-conference games that we played in ’21…those teams did really well in their leagues,” Van Horn said. “Then, obviously, we won in league play as well. That’s why we had the No. 1 RPI and nobody was even close to us.
“This year with Vegas coming in here and some of these guys coming in here, non-conference (games) on the road the first weekend — I know they’re neutral-site games, but you win those games, it’s really going to help your RPI down the road when they start beating people,” Van Horn said.
Arkansas outfielder Jared Wegner became the fourth Razorback named to a preseason All-America team when he was voted second team by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association on Thursday.
Wegner averaged .348 with 11 home runs, 14 doubles and 53 RBI last season at Creighton. He is projected to start in left field at Arkansas.
“I was kind of shocked that nobody offered him enough money to sign because he does have real bat speed and he does have real power,” Arkansas hitting coach Nate Thompson said of Wegner, a 23-year-old graduate student. “He has a good approach. He’s performed at a high level at the Division I level, and so I’m excited about him.”
Wegner batted fifth in the Razorbacks’ two scrimmages last weekend and finished 1 for 3 with 1 RBI. He walked once, was hit by a pitch twice and was 2 for 2 in stolen-base attempts.
Wegner, who is 6-0 and 230 pounds, was successful in 11 of 12 steal attempts last season at Creighton.
“He can run and he’ll fool you,” Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said. “He doesn’t tell you how good he is, how far he can hit it or how fast he is and you’ve got to like guys like that. He just kind of shows you.”
Other Razorbacks named to preseason All-America teams are left-handed pitcher Hagen Smith (third team, Perfect Game), right-handed pitcher Brady Tygart (second team, D1Baseball) and second baseman Peyton Stovall (second team, Baseball America) — all sophomores. Smith and Tygart were named to Freshman All-America teams last season.
Two Arkansas coaches are reverting to the jersey numbers they had while playing for the Razorbacks.
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn is listed as No. 2 and assistant coach Bobby Wernes as No. 7 on this year’s roster. Van Horn played second base at Arkansas in 1982 and Wernes was a third baseman for the Razorbacks from 2014-15.
Van Horn wore No. 22 last season when he agreed to let shortstop Jalen Battles wear No. 2. It was the first time a player had worn the jersey number since Van Horn returned to Arkansas as head coach in 2003.
Wernes has worn No. 6 the past two seasons while third baseman Cayden Wallace wore No. 7.
“Now that we got Cayden Wallace out of here, I got that back,” Wernes joked recently.
The jersey numbers will remain the same this year for hitting coach Nate Thompson (30) and pitching coach Matt Hobbs (47). All of Arkansas’ returning players will also wear the same jersey numbers they wore last season.
Bobby Wernes is one of four former Dave Van Horn players who are working for the 21st-year coach this season.
Clay Goodwin, an infielder from 2002-05, is entering his 16th season as the team’s director of operations; DJ Baxendale, a pitcher from 2010-12, is entering his fourth season on staff, but first in the role of director of analytics; and Cullen Smith, an infielder in 2021, is in his second season as a graduate manager.
“They all talk with the guys,” Van Horn said, “and talk about tradition and what’s expected and the way we do things around here.”
Smith turned down an opportunity to be a volunteer coach at another program last summer.
“He thought about it and talked and decided that what he was going to do was stay here,” Van Horn said, “and he’s done a great job this second year here.”
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