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Van Horn, players believe rest has helped Razorbacks reset for NCAA Tournament

BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON

FAYETTEVILLE – Both Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn and his players are ready to turn the page as the NCAA Tournament begins after a less than stellar last couple of weeks of what still was a great season.

They’ll get that chance Friday at the Fayetteville Regional when the No. 5 Razorbacks (43-14) face Ohio Valley Conference champion Southeastern Missouri State (34-25) in a 2 p.m. game at Baum-Walker Stadium.

Arkansas won the SEC Western Division championship and was ranked No. 1 for a long stretch of the season, but lost 7 of its last 10 games and its last three – a pair at the SEC Tournament.

“Yeah, you hit the nail on the head with the last couple of days,” Van Horn said when asked about his team’s changing mindset. “It’s been different. Today it was a little laid back out there, but we’ve had a couple, three good days out here. First day was good and a little bit of talking.

“Players have been doing some talking amongst themselves about goals and different things that we haven’t been involved in. It’s just great.

“…Yeah, I feel like we’re in a good place mentally. That can be shut down by another team’s pitcher or just maybe their team, but we’re in a good place right now if you take away a few injuries. I’m not complaining. Compared to last year, this team is healthy as can be.”

Arkansas junior second baseman Peyton Stovall, hitting a team-high .349 with 9 home runs and 38 RBIs, also believes the days off have been a positive.

“I know having those two days off after the (SEC) tournament, I was actually telling some of the guys in the locker room it feels like it’s been three months since we’ve played just because you play so many games in baseball in a season,” Stovall said. “It was nice to be able to get those days off.

“We spent a lot of quality time as teammates just off the field, which is huge you know in just trying to get to know each other even better than we already do.

“I think we’re all excited to play. When you have a long break like that you want to get back out there so we’re looking forward to tomorrow.”

Stovall believes it is a fresh start to reach the postseason.

“Yeah, I think you go out in the regular season and the SEC gauntlet that you face is a grind and you’ve got to show up every day,” Stovall said. “But it makes you prepared for moments like this and so it’s definitely nice to get in a regional. I mean you want to get in the postseason, that’s the No. 1 goal that pretty much everyone sets up before the season starts.”

Arkansas ace Hagen Smith (9-1,1.48) stressed his team did not want to go 0-2 at the SEC Tournament, but there was a benefit.

“It was fun getting with the guys, even with those off days and the extra rest,” Smith said. “We obviously didn’t want to go 0-2 in the tournament but it was nice having those extra days.”

Arkansas right fielder Kendall Diggs echoed those same sentiments about the break, one that came after almost two weeks away from home.

“Yeah, I’d say a lot of good things came from it,” Diggs said. “You know, a longer road trip so we came back, got off the field a little bit, rested up. Kind of like a little reset.

“But yeah, like Peyton said, as a whole team we hung out a little bit and did some different things that was team-building, just some dinner or something like that. So a lot of good things came out of it but we’re ready to go.”

Diggs was a second-team All-SEC pick last season after hitting .299 with 11 home runs and a team-high 63 RBIs, struggled this season with a .227 batting average, 6 home runs and 23 RBI.

Diggs said he benefits from the support of his teammates and coaches.

“I think for me, it’s just knowing I’m not out there by myself,” Diggs said. “We have a great staff, my teammates, everybody behind me. Showing me that I’m not alone and they’ve got my back.

“You just need to go in there and get your work done, but you don’t want to overanalyze it … Sometimes it’s just maybe taking a step back mentally and simplifying it as much as you can.

“Don’t make it super hard. Just try to keep it simple, go back to my roots and remember who I am. I’m here for a reason, all that kind of stuff. That’s helped me and I think it’s turning my way, and I just need to get going. But as far as right now, I haven’t been in pain in weeks.”

Diggs feels like he is healthy and ready to play his best.

“…I’m feeling better than ever, which is a credit to our training staff,” Diggs said. “They’ve done a great job with me making sure I’m ready to go. But as a whole, I’m really excited to be as this regional and I feel healthy.”

• • •

Southeastern Missouri State head coach Andy Swayers played for Van Horn at Nebraska and apparently Van Horn was hard to deal with at that time.

“My relationship with him is like any former player-coach relationship where the player has a ton of respect for the coach,” Sawyers said. “He changed my life, he changed my career.

“Our story is pretty intertesting. He and (assistant coach) Rob Childress arrived at Christmas break at Nebraska my senior year.

“Coach Van Horn rode me like a rented mule, like was hard on me. I was the senior starting catcher, played every day the year before and was kind of the catch and throw defender type of guy and Coach Van Horn preferred offensive catchers at act time in his career.

“I lost my starting job and I felt like he was trying too make an example of me every day in practice. He was very hard on me. He was a little more demonstrative when he was younger. I will say that.

“At the end of the year, I walked in for my meeting and he said ‘Andy, I was harder on you than you deserved, but I know you were tough enough to take it. I am trying to change the culture and I need somebody to wear it and I knew you were that guy.’

“I said ‘thanks.’ But he also said ‘I knew you wanted to into coaching and I have already got a job lined up for you. He already had a job lined up for men and I went down to Northwestern (La.) State. He had already got it set up.

“I got to teach classes in the PE department, got the be the volunteer for John Cohen, who is now the AD at Auburn. He did all that without me knowing. Wow. He was making an example of me for the team and I have the utmost respect for Coach Van Horn.”

Photo by John D. James

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