Kevin Graham

Freshman Kevin Graham has hit 10 homers and is second among Rebels in slugging percentage

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. Two wins away from the College World Series, both Ole Miss and Arkansas will try to get there with clutch production from freshmen.

It’s not only youth and newcomers for these two SEC West rivals, both having had their share of veteran players drafted earlier this week.

But both will need to have first-year guys in the program getting key at-bats and making big pitches to win the Fayetteville Super Regional.

Game 1 is today at 11 a.m. on ESPN.

If the series goes three games, four of the six starting pitchers – Connor Noland and Patrick Wicklander for Arkansas; Doug Nikhazy and Gunnar Hoglund for Ole Miss – will be freshmen.

The top hitter for No. 5 seed Arkansas (44-17) is Matt Goodheart, a sophomore who played junior college ball last season.

Ole Miss freshman Kevin Graham has 10 home runs, 34 RBIs and his .531 slugging percentage trails only Thomas Dillard on the Rebels’ roster.

College baseball’s limit of 11.7 scholarships makes it imperative that programs have productive freshmen to win, Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said.

“They have to find a way whether it’s on the mound, as a defensive replacement, a guy out of the bullpen or whatever. You only get so many guys on your team, and a good percentage of them every year are going to be freshmen,” he said.

Arkansas will have redshirt freshman Jacob Nesbit, a career 56-game starter, in the lineup, and true freshmen Curtis Washington and Trey Harris will likely get at-bats as well.

The Rebels (40-25) and Razorbacks have played a combined 126 games this season. At this stage, there’s been a lot of development for young players.

In-season adjustments

Once they’ve gotten accustomed to a higher level of pitching, freshman hitters of measurable success have to adjust again as word of their accomplishments gets around the league, and pitchers pitch them differently.

For Graham, that’s meant being more patient at the plate.

“At the beginning of the year I could only hit a fastball, pretty much only pull it,” Graham said. “Since the year’s gone on, I’ve got a lot better going the other way and hitting off-speed pitches.

“It’s just an experience thing. A year ago I was facing high school pitching. Now I’m facing 97 with a good breaker on Friday nights.”

In addition to the scholarship limitations, a team is likely to lose its best juniors to the draft each year. That structure, Van Horn said, leaves coaches with a roster that’s one-third freshmen or newcomers each season.

Ole Miss coach Mike Bianco is always evaluating, always hopeful but stops short of expecting that he’ll have a freshman hit double-figure home runs.

“Some guys maybe had better falls than Kevin, but those guys didn’t perform as well early in the season,” Bianco said. “He gets inserted into the lineup and is terrific.

“Every year is different. You get through fall and hope you have a better idea, but in our game it changes.”

parrish.alford@journalinc.com Twitter: @parrishalford

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