OMAHA, Neb. –– Arkansas’ dynamic freshmen duo — Casey Martin and Heston Kjerstad — have already etched their names in the school’s record books for what they accomplished in just one season with the Razorbacks.Ask yourself this, though: by the end of the week, when the 2018 College World Series champion is crowned, how important will those records really be? Sure, the numbers will always be there, but Martin and Kjerstad will be the first to tell you the stats are not even on their minds.
In fact, there’s only one number the Arkansas freshmen cared about Sunday afternoon ahead of its best-of-three championship series with Oregon State . . .
“That’s the only goal in college, is to win a national championship,” Kjerstad said after the Arkansas’ practice. “That’s what we came to college for.”
“He couldn’t have said it any better,” Martin added.
Nine times the Razorbacks traveled to the banks of the Missouri River looking to win a national championship, and nine times they made the return trip from Omaha to Fayettville without any hardware.
The closest Arkansas came to a title was in 1979, when it lost in the finals to Cal State Fullerton, 2-1. In the Razorbacks’ most recent trip in 2015, led by the national player of the year Andrew Benintendi, the Hogs were eliminated by the first Monday of the CWS.
“I’m just thankful to be in this situation," Kjerstad said. “It’s takes a lot of hard of work to get to this point. Playing on a great team like this, being able to play for a national championship is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’ve been cherishing every moment of it so far.”
What about the pressure to win the school’s first national championship?
“It’s the College World Series finals, but it’s another game,” Kjerstad added. “The pitcher is going to be 60 feet, six inches from us. You’re gonna go run to first tomorrow and it’s going to be 90 feet and we’re still playing on grass and dirt. It’s still baseball at the end of the day — we’re having fun.”These freshmen are saying the right things, and their play on the field has backed it up. Martin and Kjerstad rank in the top three in batting average, hits, home runs and total bases. It's even more impressive when you factor in that they're facing arguably the best arms in the country, playing in the SEC.
In Omaha, it’s been Martin who’s flourished. The Arkansas third baseman is hitting .571 (8-for-14) in the Razorbacks’ three wins. He has eight hits, six runs, two doubles and a pair of RBIs batting in the No. 2 spot. Kjerstad has four hits of his own at the College World Series, and has made some impressive plays in the field, too.
To get a sense of how locked in Arkansas, neither Martin nor Kjerstad would budge if there’s a friendly competition going on between the two of who can finish with the better numbers. At this point of the season, nothing else matters but the three-game series with the Beavers.
“That’s just kind of the way it’s worked out,” Kjerstad said. “At the end of the day, I’m still going to compete against myself and try to be the best person I can be, and it turned out we’ve both had good seasons so far and our numbers are pretty close. We just keep on striving to be better players.”
“There’s no competition really if you ask me,” Martin echoed. "He has great numbers, I have good numbers. At the end of the day, we’re all playing for each other and not for ourselves.”
No one is going to be surprised if Arkansas is back here the next couple of years playing for a national championship. Coach Dave Van Horn has built an elite lineup, full of underclassmen, starting with Kjerstad and Martin.
Still, the freshmen duo wants to capitalize now and be remembered for the one record that means the most to them: being a member of the Razorbacks’ first championship team. Because at the end of the day, numbers are just numbers, and records are meant to be broken. A championship would live forever.