FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. —
Dave Van Horn isn't about to complain about Arkansas being ranked No. 1 in several preseason college baseball polls.
That said, the Razorbacks coach isn't putting all that much stock in the early ranking, either - preferring to "hang around the top 10 all year'' in advance of postseason play.
Arkansas, fresh off its third College World Series appearance in Van Horn's 10 seasons as coach, opened practice Friday in advance of its season opener against Western Illinois on Feb. 15. The Razorbacks did so as the top-ranked team in a pair of preseason polls.
They are No. 3 in the Baseball America poll, and each of the high rankings show Van Horn a level of respect for a program that was one win away last season from playing for the national championship against eventual champion Arizona.
"It's exciting for our whole team and our program,'' Van Horn said. "It's an honor ... I feel like nationally the program is highly respected now.''
Arkansas was 46-22 last season, doing so behind one of the top pitching staffs in the country. The Razorbacks compiled a team ERA of 2.83, the second best in school history and lowest since 1976, and they won the Houston Regional and Baylor Super Regional to reach the College World Series.
Much of that staff returns this season for Arkansas, including junior right-hander Ryan Stanek, who was 8-4 with a 2.82 ERA in 17 starts for the Razorbacks last season.
While Stanek is expected to anchor the rotation, Van Horn once again expects to field plenty of pitching depth. He plans to begin the season with four quality starters, including returners Barrett Astin (1.99 ERA in 58 2/3 innings) and Randall Fant (3.27 ERA in 52 1/3 innings).
Also, Van Horn said freshman Trey Killian performed well during the fall and is expected to play a large role as a freshman - perhaps keeping Astin to remain in the bullpen, where he had 11 saves last season.
"If we can score some runs, we feel like we have a chance to win a lot of games if we can get to the sixth inning with a lead,'' Van Horn said.
Offense was one of the few weakness last season for the Razorbacks, who finished 170th in the country in runs per game (5.2).
They enter this season with a vastly different look on offense, particularly in the infield - where they must replace three starters. That includes third baseman Matt Reynolds, who was drafted in the second round by the New York Mets after hitting a team-best .323 with seven home runs and 45 RBIs last season.
One notable change is that former first baseman Dominic Ficociello, who hit .290 last season after hitting 50 points higher as a freshman, is switching to second base.
Van Horn said he's confident the offense will improve this season, regardless of how the lineup shapes up. He also said he'll place a priority on defense to back up the pitching staff, and he's confident the veteran group will find a way to win - even against the rugged Southeastern Conference, which boasts five teams in Baseball America's top 10.
"We're a little inexperienced, but there are guys pushing each other,'' Van Horn said. "Over the past couple of years, if a guy was struggling at the plate, we just kind of stuck with him.
"Now he might have to sit down a game or two and watch and try to get things straightened out and give another guy a chance.''