FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas catcher Jake Wise doesn’t need an introduction to Bryant, the Razorbacks’ first opponent in the NCAA Tournament.
He got it last summer playing with outfielder Kevin Brown in the Cape Cod League.
“I asked him what school he went to when we were in the Cape,” Wise said. “He said his school and I was like, ‘I don’t mean to be rude, but where is that? Is it D-1?’”
Wise and the Razorbacks (37-20) will learn even more about Bryant — which is located in Smithfield, R.I. — when the two meet in the first round of the Manhattan (Kan.) Regional at 7 p.m. Friday. The Bulldogs (44-16-1) were named the regional’s No. 3 seed after winning last week’s Northeast Conference Tournament.
Bryant accomplished it during its first season of Division I postseason eligibility, too. So the Bulldogs will make their NCAA Tournament debut this week.
They may be newcomers, but Arkansas pitcher Barrett Astin said the Razorbacks won’t overlook Bryant. Last year’s tournament showed what an unknown can do.
“Every team in the postseason is good,” said Astin, who will start Friday. “You look at last year. You look at Stony Brook. No one knew anything about them and they were one of the hottest teams in the country. It's the same thing with Bryant.
“They can hit. They can pitch. They can field. They can be just as good as anybody.”
Bryant’s success this season has largely come because of its work on the mound.
The Bulldogs are 10th in the nation in earned run average (2.63) and also rank No. 2 behind Arkansas in runs allowed a game (2.8). Bryant coach Steve Owens has named senior right-hander Peter Kelich (7-4, 2.53 ERA) his starter against the Razorbacks, but the Bulldogs have no shortage of capable arms for the regional.
“We knew we were going to pitch well,” Owens told the Providence (R.I.) Journal about his expectations for the season. “Our focus was on getting better defensively. Offensively, we took a big step forward this season with our hitting.”
Bryant has had success at the plate with a .289 team batting average. Brown leads the way hitting .368 with 6 home runs and 46 RBI. He was named the NEC’s player of the year and was key in helping the Bulldogs win another conference title.
This one meant the Bulldogs were moving on to the NCAA Tournament.
“We felt like our season was cut short last year,” Brown told the Providence Journal. “That gave us motivation for this year. It made this year all the sweeter.”
Arkansas’ veterans understand the danger an opponent like Bryant poses.
The Razorbacks haven’t had an easy time in their opener the past two seasons.
Arkansas had to come from behind against Sam Houston State last year, getting three runs in the seventh inning to beat the Bearkats 5-4 in the Houston Regional.
Arkansas also tumbled into the loser’s bracket in the 2011 Tempe (Ariz.) Regional after being upset by No. 3 seed Charlotte 3-0 in the opener. The Hogs managed to reach the regional final against the Sun Devils, but couldn’t overcome the hole.
Arkansas closer Colby Suggs said the Razorbacks plan to avoid the same fate Friday.
“We still remember two years ago when we lost in the first round (to Charlotte),” Suggs said. “We still remember that, and we're going to come out ready to play. Plus, Bryant is a great team. I think they have 44 wins, which is more than us.
“Obviously, they've had some success and they know how to win. But we're going to go out and give them out best shot and hopefully we'll come out on top.”
The programs have never met, although Owens did coach a postseason game against Arkansas during his 11-year tenure at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. The Razorbacks beat LeMoyne 4-1 to open the 2004 Fayetteville Regional and went on to reach the College World Series for the first time under Dave Van Horn.
Arkansas is hoping for the same outcome against Owens' next team this season.
Players said Tuesday they haven’t been able to gather much information about the Bulldogs as they continued to prepare for Friday’s game. But what the Hogs do know is enough to understand they can’t afford to take Bryant lightly this weekend.
“It’s postseason,” Wise said. “Everybody is fighting for their life. Everybody wants to get to Omaha. That’s everybody’s goal at the beginning of the season and they have a chance to do it. We’re the team they’ve got to go through.”
NCAA MANHATTAN (KAN.) REGIONAL SCHEDULE
Game 1: No. 1 Kansas State vs. No. 4 Wichita State, 2 p.m. (ESPNU)
Game 2: No. 2 Arkansas vs. No. 3 Bryant, 7 p.m.
Game 3: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 2 p.m.
Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, 2 p.m.
Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 7 (if necessary): - Game 4 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 7 p.m.