From Bret Bielema recruit to College World Series ace, Connor Noland’s Arkansas ride has been 1 of 1

As Arkansas baseball play-by-play announcer Phil Elson made his way through airport security ahead of the team’s flight to North Carolina for the Super Regional, he noticed something different about Connor Noland’s bag. His luggage tag had an Arkansas football helmet on it.

Mind you, that tag was for someone who last played on the Arkansas football team in Year 1 of the Chad Morris era in 2018. Even 3 years after he decided to give up playing quarterback and focus exclusively on baseball, Noland still carries Arkansas football with him wherever he goes. Shoot, Noland is old enough to remember getting recruited by (and committing to) Bret Bielema’s staff. Granted, Noland also committed to Dave Van Horn’s staff as a 2-sport star out of powerhouse Greenwood High School (Ark.).

On Saturday, Noland’s college journey will come full circle. The guy who won a game as a true freshman quarterback for Morris and was a true freshman starting pitcher in the College World Series is back in Omaha. This time, however, Noland is the veteran ace starting Game 1 and not the plucky first-timer on the big stage.

Oh, and Noland is coming off a start in which he delivered 6 2/3 shutout innings against UNC in Game 1 of the Super Regional.

That was after he threw 7 innings of 1-run ball to start the NCAA Tournament with a win against Grand Canyon. For an Arkansas staff that hadn’t had a starter last 6 innings since April, Noland’s brilliance set the tone for the postseason Hogs.

“He went out and gave them exactly what they needed at the most critical time,” Elson told SDS. “That said a lot about him.”

Not too shabby for a guy who essentially had 2 lost seasons heading into 2022.

So how did Noland get from Point A to Point B? And how is it that a Bielema-era football recruit is now a monumental cog in Arkansas’ push to win its first baseball national championship?

It’s complicated. To say that Noland went through hell and back would be an overstatement. To say he came face-to-face with a pebble or two on his path back to Omaha would be an understatement.

COVID ended his sophomore season abruptly and he admitted he struggled to keep in shape during the shutdown. That led to an arm strain injury against Southeast Missouri, which he tried to pitch through, but that ultimately knocked him out for 2 months in the start of his junior season. He made 7 relief appearances after his return and only finished with 14 1/3 innings of work in 2021. Before the 2022 season, he shed 20-25 pounds to get back in the 210-215 range, and more importantly, he got back to being someone who could go deep into games.

“You use the word ‘linear’ to describe what to expect out of careers, and it’s so rare for that to happen, especially as a pitcher,” Elson said. “I think (Noland) learned from watching the non-linear career of Kevin Kopps and the non-linear career of Isaiah Campbell.”

Kopps showed promise as a true freshman but didn’t progress as he hoped because of Tommy John Surgery his sophomore season. After struggling as a reliever during a COVID-shortened junior season, Kopps became the National Pitcher of the Year for an Arkansas team that earned the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2021.

Campbell also needed season-ending surgery as a sophomore following his impressive freshman year in Fayetteville. By Year 4, though, Campbell became a lockdown ace who delivered 7 innings of shutout ball in the Hogs’ opening game in Omaha (he got a no-decision in a 1-0 loss to Florida State).

Unlike his former All-American teammates, Noland had to work through some midseason issues just to get his ERA under 4.00 heading into Omaha.

“Connor isn’t having a dominant season like that. He’s not that kind of pitcher. But he’s really smart, he keeps batters off-balance, he shows you how to pitch,” Elson said of Noland, who has a 3.86 ERA heading into the CWS. “If you were to say, ‘What’s special about Connor Noland?’ I’d say it’s his competitive nature, the tenacity he shows, he’s a great fielder … a lot of being a good fielding pitcher is all about footwork. What’s quarterback play all about? It’s all about footwork.”

Noland’s initial plan was to be a 2-sport star in college, specifically in-state at Arkansas. Well, he did go on roughly 15 college visits in a 2-week stretch after he followed his dad’s advice to keep an open mind about the process. But ultimately, Noland said he got the sense that Arkansas was most accepting of his 2-sport vision (H/T The Hog Pod). He kept his commitment to the school after Morris took over for Bielema in Dec. 2017.

On the surface, it appeared Noland handled that decision about as well as one could’ve asked. His freshman school year consisted of winning a game as an SEC starting quarterback (a 23-0 victory against Tulsa) and as an SEC starting pitcher. The list of SEC athletes who accomplished that feat at any point in college consists of Noland and, ironically enough, former Razorback Barry Lunney Jr., who also served as the team’s interim coach when Morris was fired.

But it was anyone’s guess how far down Noland was on the QB depth chart. Noland progressed more in baseball, which was the sport he always had a little more love for. As spring football was in full swing, Noland said that he’d come back from his baseball duties and always feel like he was behind with learning the offense.

“I didn’t want to be average at both,” he said on The Hog Pod. “I decided to put all of my chips on baseball and just go all in.”

It might’ve taken a little bit longer than he hoped, but that gamble paid off. He’s still tight with Arkansas football players but he “never looked back.”

Noland appears to be wired more like a baseball player. It’s not that he doesn’t get fired up — he let out a triumphant yell and a chest bump of catcher Casey Opitz after earning a 3-inning save against Ole Miss to send Arkansas to the 2021 SEC Championship. It’s more that Noland is a bit more even-keeled after learning how to deal with the ebbs and flows that come with playing 2 high-profile positions.

“Just being part of that Chad Morris team,” Elson said, “you know what it’s like to try to be the phoenix rising from the ashes.”

When Noland was a Perfect Game Freshman All-American in 2019, he ran into a buzzsaw against Ole Miss in the Super Regional. With a chance to send Arkansas to Omaha, he instead got tagged for 4 earned runs and taken deep twice in his 1 inning of work. Arkansas took a 13-5 loss on the chin.

That night, Elson saw Noland and his family eating dinner at a local restaurant. Elson noticed that people were keeping their distance from the freshman pitcher after his rough outing. But Noland, true to form, had a smile on his face when Elson made small talk with him.

Sure enough, Arkansas responded with a Super Regional-clinching win the next day and Noland eventually got a chance to pitch in Omaha, where he allowed 2 earned runs in 4 innings in an elimination game against Texas Tech. “He just sort of bounces back from those sort of things,” Elson said.

Noland had 2 significant bounce-backs in this postseason alone. He entered the NCAA Tournament having allowed 5 earned runs in 3 consecutive starts. Then, he delivered the aforementioned Grand Canyon gem. After an extremely rare relief appearance went poorly in a 14-10 shootout loss to Oklahoma State in the Regional, Noland kicked off the Super Regional with another masterful start to beat host UNC.

On Saturday, Noland won’t be asked to bounce back. He’ll be asked to get Arkansas 1 step closer to getting over the hump in Omaha.

If things go according to plan, he’ll get multiple chances to do just that. Soon, Noland could be in line for a new luggage tag that has 2 all-important words on it.

National Champions.

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