As Arkansas baseball announcer Phil Elson was making his way through airport security ahead of the team’s trip to North Carolina for the Super Regional, he noticed something different about Conor Noland’s bag. On his luggage tag was an Arkansas football helmet.
Keep in mind that tag was for someone who last played for the Arkansas soccer team in the first year of the Chad Morris era in 2018. Even 3 years after he decided to ditch playing quarterback and focus exclusively on baseball, Noland still holds the ball. In Arkansas with wherever he goes. Schott, Noland is old enough to remember that he was recruited by (and committed) Brett Bielima’s crew. Granted, Noland is also committed to Dave Van Horn’s staff as a sports star out of the power of Greenwood High School (Ark.).
On Saturday, Noland’s college trip will complete a full cycle. The man who won a game as a true new quarterback for Morris and was a true rookie in the College World Series is back in Omaha. But this time around, Noland is the veteran player who started Game 1 and not the brave first timer on the big stage.
Oh, and Noland is right off the ground as he made 6 2/3 stop rounds against UNC in Game 1 of the Super Regional.
6Ks Conor Noland. pic.twitter.com/mdTGDuDCqW
– Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) 11 June 2022
That was after he threw 7 innings of one-ball runs to start the NCAA Championship by defeating the Grand Canyon. For the Arkansas staff who haven’t played in the last 6 rounds since April, Noland’s brilliance set the tone for the post-season 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 basically lost two seasons heading into 2022.
So how did Noland get from point A to point B? And how is the Belima-era football recruit now a formidable cog in Arkansas’ quests to win its first National Baseball Championship?
It is complicated. To say Noland went through hell and came back would be an exaggeration. To say he encountered a pebble or two on the way back to Omaha would be an understatement.
COVID ended his sophomore season abruptly and he admitted he struggled to stay fit during the lockdown. That resulted in an arm injury against Southeast Missouri, which he tried to break through, but that eventually knocked him out for two months at the start of his junior season. He made 7 reliefs after his comeback and only finished with 14 1/3 working innings in 2021. Before the 2022 season, he lost 20-25 pounds to get back in the 210-215 range, and most importantly he’s back to be someone who can go deeper into the games.
“You use the word ‘linear’ to describe what to expect outside of professions, and it’s very rare that that happens, particularly as a pitcher,” Elson said. “I think (Noland) learned from watching the non-linear career of Kevin Cobbs and the non-linear career of Isaiah Campbell.”
Kopps showed promise as a real freshman but didn’t progress as well as he had hoped due to Tommy John Surgery his second season. After struggling as a savior during a shortened junior season for the coronavirus, Cobbs became the National Pitcher of the Year for the Arkansas-ranked No. 1 in the NCAA Championships in 2021.
Campbell also needed end-of-season surgery as a sophomore after his brilliant first year at Fayetteville. By the fourth year, Campbell became a lockout player who made 7 rounds of the closing ball in the Hogs inaugural game in Omaha (he didn’t get a decision in the 1–0 loss to Florida State).
Unlike his former All-American teammates, Noland had to work through some mid-season issues just to get his ERA under 4.00 heading to Omaha.
“Connor doesn’t have a dominant season like this. He’s not that kind of pitcher. He’s really smart, he keeps the rackets balanced, he shows you how to play,” Elson said of Noland, who has a 3.86 ERA bound for the CWS. What’s so special about Conor Noland?” What is quarterback all about playing? It’s all about the movement of the feet.”
I feel like Conor Noland’s defensive plan is to let them hit the ball away from him so he can catch it and throw the guy out. I’ve seen him do it 6 times this season pic.twitter.com/2Qlhh0MCcH
– Stephen Shush (@bigdonkey47) 11 June 2022
Noland’s initial plan was to be a college sports star, specifically in Arkansas. Well, he has gone on about 15 college visits in a two week period after following his father’s advice to keep an open mind about the process. But in the end, Noland said he felt Arkansas was more accepting of his vision of the two sports (H/T Pork). He maintained his commitment to the school after Maurice took charge of Belima in December 2017.
On the surface, Noland seemed to handle this decision as one could have asked. His year as a freshman consisted of winning a game as an SEC starting quarterback (23-0 victory over Tulsa) and as an SEC starting pitcher. The list of athletes who ever accomplished this feat in college consists of Noland and, ironically, former Razorback Barry Looney Jr., who also served as the team’s interim coach when Morris was fired.
But anyone would have guessed how deep Noland was on the QB chart. Noland has gone further in baseball, a sport he has always loved. When springtime football was in full swing, Noland said he came back from his baseball duties and always felt like it was too late to learn the offense.
“I didn’t want to be mediocre in both,” he said on The Hog Pod. “I decided to put all my chips in a baseball game and get them all in.”
It may have taken a little longer than he had hoped, but this gamble paid off. He’s still tight with the Arkansas footballers but has “never looked back.”
Noland looks like a baseball player. Not that he didn’t get carried away – he let out a cry of victory and shock at catcher Casey Opitz’s chest after making a 3-stroke save against the Ole Miss to send Arkansas to the 2021 SEC Championship. What’s more, Noland is more balanced after learning how to handle the tides that come with playing two high-profile locations.
“Just being a part of Chad Morris’ team, you know what it’s like to try to be a phoenix that rises from the ashes,” Elson said.
When Noland was the Perfect Game Freshman All-American in 2019, he got into trouble against Ole Miss in the Super Regional. With a chance to send Arkansas to Omaha, instead, he’s tagged for 4 earned runs and twice deep into his first turn of the business. Arkansas suffered a 13-5 loss on the chin.
That night, Elson saw Noland and his family having dinner at a local restaurant. Elson noticed that people were turning away from the new shooter after a rough outing. But Noland, apparently, had a smile on his face when Elson spoke to him.
Sure enough, Arkansas responded with a regional Super win the next day and Noland eventually got a chance to advance in Omaha, allowing 2 rounds he earned in 4 runs in an elimination match against Texas Tech. “He kind of wore that kind of thing,” Elson said.
Noland had 2 big bounces in this postseason alone. He entered the NCAA Championship after allowing 5 wins in 3 consecutive starts. He then handed over the aforementioned Grand Canyon gem. After a very rare appearance to rest in the 14-10 penalty shootout loss to Oklahoma State in the regional, Noland made the Super Regional with another brilliant start to win over the host UNC.
On Saturday, Noland will not be asked to return. He will be required to bring Arkansas one step closer to overtaking the hump in Omaha.
If all goes according to plan, he will have multiple opportunities to do so. Soon, Noland could be in line for a new baggage tag that contains two very important words.