Dukes prepared for the ‘experience’

FAYETTEVILLE -- When James Madison University's season-opening weekend plans for the 2024 baseball season fell through a while back at short notice, the possibility of playing at Arkansas crossed the radar of ninth-year Coach Marlin Ikenberry.

Communication advanced between the Dukes and UA director of baseball operations Clay Goodwin, and soon a series was born. And not just any series.

The No. 4 Razorbacks and James Madison are set to tangle for the first time in a four-game set starting with today's season-opener at 2 p.m. at Baum-Walker Stadium.

Ikenberry, a long-time coach at his alma mater Virginia Military Institute who has a 184-184 record at James Madison through eight seasons, said he is excited about checking out the region and the Razorbacks.

"We had some things kind of fall through the cracks and they [Arkansas] had an opening," Ikenberry said. "We reached out to Clay ... and I said, 'Yeah, sure let's do it.'

"I've never been there and I love to take the guys to places I've never been just for experience reasons. I thought, well, this is a great opportunity to play one of the best teams in the country and compete on a national stage on the opening weekend. I always like doing that.

"I really think it's a great opportunity for us ... to get to another part of the country and compete."

The Dukes opened at Florida State last season and were swept in a three-game series although they didn't struggle to score runs with a combined run total of 34-18, including 17-10 in the finale.

James Madison brings back a solid array of veteran hitters and pitchers. Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said he is impressed by looking at the Dukes' stats and video.

"This is a team that last year hit right at almost .300," Van Horn said, referencing the Dukes' .298 team batting average. "Won a lot of games. They're competitive and I don't feel like they would have scheduled to come here a couple years ago if they didn't feel good about what they had in their program at the time and also what's coming in to start the season on the road a long way from home like this."

Ikenberry said the weather conditions in northwestern Virginia this spring have been productive.

"I tell you what, this preseason is probably the best we've had in 20 years in Virginia," he said. "We've been extremely lucky. We haven't been inside as much as we've been in year's past. That can be kind of a little catch-22. We're getting ready to play a 56-game schedule and you've got three weeks to get [preseason practices] in, and there's a lot to put in front of these kids in a short amount of time."

Ikenberry said he and his staff debated whether to agree to a four-game set or go with the more standard three-game series.

"We talked about it and we always look up this time of year and miss mid-week games because of the weather and Arkansas was in the same boat," Ikenberry said. "So we looked at it and we're going, 'OK, let's play four games and spend some more time that weekend.' Now, looking back on it, I kind of wish I wouldn't have.

"But it's a great experience for our club to play. ... I really think it's a great opportunity for us, being in the Sun Belt Conference, to get to another part of the country and compete."

Ikenberry said he's watched a little bit of video on Arkansas hitters.

"I know they've got a lot of really good players up and down the lineup and every pitch and every out is going to be a challenge," he said. "We know they're talented and they're going to do a lot of different things. They produce a well-balanced lineup, which, when you're third in the country, you're going to have a well-balanced lineup."

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