NEW BRITAIN - Charlie Hickey isnâ€™t unrealistic.
The Central Connecticut State head baseball coach knows the type of challenge that awaits the Blue Devils at 2 p.m. today in their opening game of the Fayetteville Regional.
â€śTheyâ€™re the fifth-ranked team [in the country] for a reason,â€ť said Hickey, who is one of the coaches who votes in the USA Today poll. â€śArkansas is a great team and a well-coached team.â€ť
The two schoolsâ€™ paths to the NCAA Tournament have been as different as their programs are. One is from the SEC, the Power 5 and is the top seed in the regional. The other is from the Northeast and needed to win its conference to secure a spot and the No. 4 seed of the four teams in Fayetteville.
And Northeast Conference teams havenâ€™t had much success in NCAA regional games. The NEC is just 1-45, but the lone win came against Arkansas. Bryant beat the Razorbacks 4-1 in the Manhattan (Kan.) Regional in 2013. Arkansas then came back to beat the Bulldogs 12-3.
Overall, only four non-Power 5 schools have won the College World Series since 2000: Rice in 2003, Cal State Fullerton in 2004, Freson State in 2008 and Coastal Carolina in 2016. Hickeyâ€™s teams are 0-10 in NCAA Tournament games. Their closest game was a 6-5 loss to Dallas Baptist in 2017.
Still, Hickey and his players are coming into todayâ€™s game with a sense of confidence and momentum, especially after coming back from the loserâ€™s bracket in the Northeast Conference Tournament to win the NECâ€™s automatic bid on Sunday after 3-1 and 3-2 wins over Bryant.
â€śWinning is contagious,â€ť Hickey said. â€śWeâ€™re excited. We really played some quality baseball last week and we really played well the second half of the year. But this past week, we played well against Wagner, lost to Bryant, won two games on Saturday and to come back and beat Bryant to get here, sure we feel good about it.
â€śPlaying in these environments is special. They donâ€™t have the Red Sox and the Yankees two hours away. Their college teams are their pro teams. Weâ€™re going to see a fan base thatâ€™s going be loud and really into it.â€ť
Arkansas (41-17), meanwhile, comes in having lost five of its last seven games. But the Razorbacks have plenty of depth in its pitching staff and in its lineup.
Arkansas will forgo using its ace, Isaiah Campbell (10-1, 2.37 ERA) against the Blue Devils and will start freshman Connor Nolan (2-3, 3.71 ERA) instead. The right-hander has a 1.56 ERA in his past seven appearances, including not allowing an earned run over 14 2/3 innings in back-to-back starts against Mississippi State and Tennessee.
At the plate, the Razorbacks have a .299 average, 78 homers, 427 runs scored in 58 games and a .398 on-base percentage as a team.
Sophomore third baseman Casey Martin leads Arkansas with 15 home runs, 53 RBI and a .581 slugging percentage to go along with a .298 average. Thereâ€™s also sophomore outfielder Heston Kjerstad who is hitting .329 with 14 homers, 44 RBI and a .560 slugging percentage. Jack Kenley (.311, 12 home runs, 48 RBI) and Dominic Fletcher (.316, 10 HR, 53 RBI) have also proven to be dangerous.
â€śOne of the things that Iâ€™ve always stressed is you have to play defense,â€ť Hickey said. â€śYou cannot give these teams more than three outs in an inning. If you kick the ball around or give them a free base, they will punish you.â€ť
CCSU (30-21) will counter with junior right-hander Brandon Fox (3-5, 3.84 ERA). The Blue Devils also have senior right-hander and Bristol Eastern graduate Tom Curtin (5-3, 3.96 ERA), senior right-hander Patrick Mitchell (6-3, 4.58 ERA) waiting. Senior left-hander and Berlin graduate Jared Gallagher (3-0, 1.72 ERA) has nine saves.
At the plate, CCSU is led by redshirt sophomore first baseman TT Bowens who has a .386 batting average, four home runs, 12 doubles and 21 RBI in the past 29 games since coming back from knee surgery. The Blue Devilsâ€™ other top hitters are senior right fielder Dave Matthews (.297, 6 home runs and 38 RBI) and junior third baseman Buddy Dewaine (.279, 1, 27).
As a team, CCSU is hitting .260 with 26 home runs.
But even as Hickey and the Blue Devils go for the programâ€™s first-ever tournament win against an opponent the head coach said has more talent, CCSU knows it just has to go out and play baseball. It may seem simple, but thatâ€™s what the Blue Devils are trying to stress, unrealistic or not.
â€śThereâ€™s no more pressure,â€ť Hickey said. â€śThat was [last] Saturday when we were playing a doubleheader to avoid elimination in the conference tournament. This is about going out and enjoying the moment and playing baseball.â€ť
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org