Jim Harris: Unlike '79, Razorbacks Don't Quite Have CWS Title In Grasp Yet

by Jim Harris  on Wednesday, Jun. 20, 2012 1:05 pm  

Norm DeBriyn coached Arkansas to its first appearance in Omaha in 1979 and to within one game that year of the national championship. Until Monday, the Hogs had not started the College World Series 2-0 since 1979. (Photo by UA Sports Media Relations)

This story is from the archives of ArkansasSports360.com.

Arkansas has never come quite as close to an NCAA baseball championship as the Razorbacks did in 1979. The biggest reason for that is, until late Monday night in Omaha, Neb., the Hogs had only started 2-0 in the College World Series in 1979. Obviously, the deeper a team can go in a double-elimination baseball tournament, the better the chances of taking home the title.

Dave Van Horn's Razorback team has as few as three and as many as five games remaining over the next week to go the distance and win Arkansas' first baseball national title. Thursday night, the Hogs will either move straight into the best-of-three championship round with either Florida State or Arizona, or face a one-and-done game with either South Carolina or Kent State to reach the final series.

Unlike its football and basketball programs, Arkansas has been blessed with invaluable coaching continuity over the past four decades. Norm DeBriyn took four UA teams to Omaha, the first coming in 1979, and his former player and assistant coach, Van Horn, is now enjoying a third trip with the Hogs. Programs with that kind of stability expect to make Omaha a postseason destination. Van Horn, in a press conference Tuesday, lamented being unable to deliver a national title to Fayetteville in his 10 seasons, but one only has to look at Florida State to find the utmost is college baseball disappointment: 23 trips to Omaha without a crown. And the Seminoles are back again.

Arkansas came ridiculously close to winning in its maiden voyage to old Rosenblatt Stadium 33 years ago. This current group of Hogs would seem to be overmatched in facing DeBriyn's bunch that year. We see no Kevin McReynolds or Johnny Ray, future everyday major league stars. That club also had such senior standouts as shortstop Larry Wallace and hard-hitting Mark Brumble, as well as junior catcher Ronn Reynolds, who played in the majors.

The pitching now is as good as it has been, and deeper than ever (though as starters Nick Schmidt and Jess Todd were stellar on the mound five years ago, at least right up until the Fayetteville regional against Oklahoma State). But that '79 bunch had a trio of talented starting hurlers — Rich Erwin, Steve Krueger and Scott Tabor — who peaked during the Hogs' run.

Still, with all that talent, Arkansas' run to Omaha in 1979 seemed a surprise coming out of a Southwest Conference dominated by Texas.

The Razorbacks got the sweetest of victories in Nebraska, 9-4 over the Longhorns in Omaha, behind Tabor's pitching and their explosive bats, to reach 3-0 in the tournament.

The bracket was different then. Before this setup of regionals, super regionals, four-team pods at the CWS and then a championship best-of-three round, and even before the silly, TV-suggested move of a one-and-done national title game after everything else had been played in a double-elimination format, the NCAA champion was the last survivor of an eight-team, double-elimination bracket.

The last team standing at 3-0 and the other three with one loss made up a "final four" of sorts. Arkansas drew Cal State-Fullerton, a college best known to Arkansans at the time for surprisingly having reached the 1978 West Regional basketball final against the Triplets. The Titans were led by future major league hitting star Tim Wallach.

DeBriyn faced a pitching conundrum going into the first game with Fullerton, coached then by current Texas head coach Augie Garrido. Erwin, who had started the opener vs. Pepperdine and struggled early, had come back two days later with a spectacular performance against Arizona (featuring Terry Francona). Krueger had ended up winning the opener in long relief of Erwin. Tabor had the most recent outing, against Texas, and would need rest.

If Arkansas defeated Fullerton in the semifinal round, it still could possibly face Pepperdine or Texas twice more. Arkansas, though, was still assured of a berth in the final against the last team standing among the one-loss squads. Krueger was ready to go, but then he wouldn't be available if Arkansas had to play twice more. Erwin had pitched a lot of innings up to that point.

DeBriyn decided to go with little-used Manuel Warrior in a game the Hogs figured they could afford to lose, and save the ace, Krueger, for the final game. If Arkansas still managed to win with Warrior, he had Krueger and Erwin left, and maybe Tabor for some innings, if Arkansas had to play two in the championship round.



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