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Hogs-Red Wolves to break last taboo

by Bob Holt | May 11, 2021 at 7:00 a.m.
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn reacts, Sunday, May 9, 2021 during the fifth inning of a baseball game at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville. Check out nwaonline.com/210510Daily/ for today's photo gallery. .(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Charlie Kaijo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- As a Mississippi State assistant baseball coach from 1994-2008, Tommy Raffo faced the University of Arkansas 45 times.

The Bulldogs held a 23-22 advantage in those SEC West matchups.

"Extremely competitive between Arkansas and Mississippi State," Raffo said. "Great ballgames and a lot of fans at both sites."

Raffo's games against the Razorbacks stopped when he was hired as Arkansas State University's coach on July 1, 2008.

Arkansas' administration had a long-standing policy of not scheduling in-state colleges in any sports.

But Raffo had hope that would change eventually after he got a phone call from Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn.

"Dave called within a couple of days of me being hired and said, 'Congratulations, and I absolutely want to schedule you, but my hands are tied right now,' " Raffo said. "Having competed against him in the SEC, I knew he was being honest and wanted to play. He could have cared less about the political part of it.

"He said, 'Listen, I'm going to call you if this thing ever opens up.' I said, 'Great, we'd love to do it.' So lo and behold it opens up, and he calls first thing and says, 'Hey, let's play.' I said, 'Great, let's do it.'

"I never had a doubt in my mind Dave would call and schedule us when he could. I knew he'd be true to his word."

The No. 1-ranked Razorbacks (36-9) and Red Wolves (16-24) finally will play in baseball for the first time at 6:30 tonight in Baum-Walker Stadium.

Each team will start a freshman right-hander with Jaxon Wiggins (3-0, 5.11 ERA) throwing for Arkansas against ASU's Tyler Jeans (1-2, 6.41 ERA).

"It'll be kind of an interesting event," Van Horn said.

Van Horn, in his 19th season at Arkansas, long pushed for the Razorbacks to play in-state opponents.

It finally happened in 2019 when Van Horn was allowed to schedule other schools in the UA system -- the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff -- and the Razorbacks faced those teams in other sports with the permission of new Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek and the administration.

In June 2020, Yurachek announced Arkansas coaches could schedule ASU and UCA as well as UALR and UAPB in all sports.

The Razorbacks already have played the Trojans, Bears and Golden Lions five times this season and are 5-0. ASU will be the last NCAA Division I team in Arkansas the Razorbacks have played.

"This is a big deal for the state of Arkansas in regard to baseball and the way kids view baseball in the state, that all the schools are playing each other now," Raffo said. "It's good for baseball in the state and will help all of our programs.

"Players in Arkansas keep getting better, and we all want them to stay home and play for the college teams here."

ASU split a doubleheader at Oklahoma on March 14, winning the opener 15-14 and losing the nightcap 9-1, then lost to the Sooners 12-6 a day later.

The next day Oklahoma came to Baum-Walker Stadium and beat Arkansas 8-5.

ASU is 0-3 against SEC teams, losing at Ole Miss 12-1 to open the season on Feb. 23, 18-10 at Mississippi State on April 13, and 15-12 at Ole Miss last Tuesday night.

"They're scoring runs," Van Horn said of the Red Wolves. "I saw them score eight runs in one inning against Ole Miss last Tuesday. I saw them hit six doubles and four homers against Ole Miss.

"It'll be a battle. It's tough, especially this time of the year in between conference games."

ASU junior first baseman Liam Hicks went 4 for 6 against the Rebels last week, including a home run and two doubles. He scored four runs and drove in three.

Hicks is batting .398 to share the Sun Belt Conference lead, and has 5 home runs and 24 RBI.

"Liam's a professional type hitter," Raffo said. "He reminds me of a lot of hitters in the SEC -- top-end hitters. He doesn't run very well at all, so that tells you a little bit more about his average. He's not beating out infield hits.

"He puts in the time and work in the batting cage. He has a great mindset and a plan when he comes to the plate. He's been fun to watch go about his business."

Raffo's first experience playing Arkansas on the road was in 1995 when the Razorbacks swept the Bulldogs at George Cole Field. When Mississippi State next played at Arkansas in 1997 and the Bulldogs took two of three games, the Razorbacks were in their second season at what was then known as Baum Stadium.

"Going from playing Arkansas at their old place to their new place, it was unbelievable what they had done with Baum and how much they had invested in the program," Raffo said. "And of course, they've kept adding onto it over the years."

Baum Stadium was the result of the program and relationships Norm DeBriyn built in his 33 seasons as the Arkansas coach from 1970-2002, includng four College World Series appearances.

Raffo, a two-time All-American first baseman at Mississippi State in 1989-90, was heading into his junior year at Jacksonville (Fla.) Bishop Kenny High School in the summer of 1985 when he met DeBriyn in Baton Rouge at the National Sports Festival.

Only Raffo didn't know who DeBriyn -- who had just led Arkansas to its second College World Series appearance -- was at the time.

"There was a really kind gentleman handing out cleats to the players," Raffo said. "I was just excited to be playing on the Sports Festival team, and I didn't know who he was.

"I came to find out later it was Norm DeBriyn and he was the Arkansas coach. What a small world."

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