Arkansas’ Connor Noland looks to thrive as a villain in Stillwater
BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
STILLWATER, Okla. –When the NCAA Baseball Stillwater Regional opens at Oklahoma State’s O’Brate Stadium on Friday, it will face a veteran pitcher who pitched on college baseball’s biggest stage against a prized newcomer.
Arkansas (38-18) will send Connor Noland senior for the midday contest while Grand Canyon University (41-19) will go with rookie Daniel Avitia (8-4, 3.59), pitcher and rookie from the year of the Western Athletic Conference.
Noland (5-4, 4.02), who started the College World Series in 2019, started the season well but hasn’t been as effective lately.
Arkansas has lost four straight and six of its last eight. He’s used to hosting regionals, not traveling to play, which became a reality when they skidded to the finish.
Noland hopes to slip into the villainous role this weekend in a tournament that also includes Oklahoma State and Missouri State.
“It’s something I’ve never done in my career,” Noland said. “So it’s new for me, but it’s something different. I mean, you sort of become the bad guy. And you enter a different facility, a different environment and play games. That’s exciting. This is a new opportunity for us.
Once 5-1 this season, Noland has gone no more than five innings in his last four outings after an eighth-inning performance against Ole Miss on April 29.
He allowed six runs over 4 2/3 innings in his last start, which turned into a 7-5 loss to Florida in the SEC tournament, but Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn, said the scans told a different story.
“That’s what we see, and we used TrackMan (computer analysis) and other data,” Van Horn said. “His stuff last weekend was really good. Breaking ball, speed on his fastball. Maybe he didn’t locate it like he normally does, but his stuff isn’t down.
“We feel really good about Connor, and we feel like he’s as strong as ever. It’s not like we threw eight innings at him every weekend. That’s 5, 6, 7.”
Noland, who met the media Thursday with Arkansas third baseman Cayden Wallace, said he’s ready.
“I feel really good,” Noland said. “I’m just excited. I think everyone here is very happy that we have an opportunity. No matter how much I rest or how I feel, I’m going to go out there and give it my all.
“Playing at Arkansas, I have a good opportunity and I think Cayden can speak for everyone saying we’re ready. We’re just ready to step onto the court.
Noland was asked if he thinks it’s time for the odds to turn for Arkansas, which has lost four straight and six of its last eight games.
“I hope so,” Noland said. “I’m not a guy who believes in luck very much. I think you do your job, you prepare and it will come to you.
Wallace said the Razorbacks believed in Noland.
“On Connor, I’m expecting the same thing I’ve been expecting all year,” Wallace said. “He’s giving everything, he’s going to give us a competitive game. We really haven’t helped him much in attack this year, but that’s our objective tomorrow: to help him. I personally think he’s done really well all year. He gave us all the offense we could wish for.
Grand Canyon head coach Andy Stankiewicz believes Noland will put up an outstanding performance.
“He’s a great player and we expect him to be in top form and get his game started,” Stankewicz said.
Avitia is a local Phoenix prospect whose brother David was a 2020 Chicago Cubs draft pick after thriving for an Antelopes program that became Division I in 2014.
Daniel Avitia was also drafted by the Cubs but wanted $300,000 and was only offered $125,000 after taking him in the 19th round of the 2021 Major League Baseball Draft.
“He’s aggressive and has always been very aggressive on the mound,” Stankiewicz said. “He is one of those young men that he attacks in the strike zone. He has a super fastball and change, slider and he can use them in any account. “I think what we love about Daniel is his shots, the defense is ready behind him. They know he’s going to hammer the zone.
“Generally it’s a quicker game and I know that’s what a lot of our guys in defense appreciate.”
Avitia got the go-ahead on senior Nick Hull (7-1, 3.89).
“He (Avitia) is used to it and relishes the opportunity to get on the mound and just be one of the guys to help our team succeed,” Stankiewicz said.
Avitia was the one Van Horn expected to face.
“He was player of the year or pitcher of the year in their league,” Van Horn said. “Had, like, 107-109 strikeouts in 80 innings. Think it’s 8-4. 14 starts, something like that. Thrown out of the paddock, maybe, early. But anyway, they have two great options. Maybe three, I don’t know.
“…Just a lanky kid with a whipped arm. 3/4 pitch, movement, can make it away from left-handed and right-handed people. The reconnaissance report talks about the bike and all that.