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Little Rock does big things in college baseball

Arkansas underdog joins elite teams in NCAA tournament
by: COURTESY OF ARKANSAS LITTLE-ROCK Coach Scott Norwood huddles with his Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans.

Arkansas-Little Rock comes to Corvallis for the NCAA regional baseball tournament with a certifiable Cinderella pedigree. But the UALR nine has no corner on the market on its own campus.

In basketball, Little Rock entered the Sun Belt Conference tournament with a 15-16 record (7-9 in conference). The Trojans upset top-seeded Arkansas State in the quarterfinals; in the finals, Solomon Bozeman's 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds left lifted them past North Texas 64-63 to secure their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1990.

UALR lost to North Carolina-Asheville 81-77 in overtime in one of the 'First Four' games of the Big Dance. Baseball coach Scott Norwood is looking for better results when the No. 4-seeded Trojans (24-32) face top seed Oregon State (38-17) in a 6 p.m. Friday contest at Goss Stadium.

'Our basketball coaches are good friends of mine,' says Norwood, in his third season as the UALR baseball coach. 'I kept telling our guys, 'They did it; we can do it, too.' '

Little Rock entered the Sun Belt tournament with a 10-20 conference record, the last of eight teams in the 10-team league to qualify. That earned the Trojans a first-round matchup with top-seeded (and 21st-ranked) Troy.

The Trojans won 4-2 in 10 innings, the first of four straight victories that ended with a 7-6 win over Florida International for the school's first conference tournament title.

'We pitched outstanding in the tournament,' Norwood says. 'Our bullpen was really good, and we had a lot of clutch, two-out hits. The steady thing for us all season has been our defense, and that was pretty good, too.'

Stretch of injuries

Little Rock has little baseball tradition. This is the school's first NCAA tourney. Until this spring, the Trojans had not even qualified as one of eight teams for the Sun Belt tournament since 2003.

'It's fun,' Norwood says. 'Hey, when you're the first one to do it, you'll always be remembered as the group that got things started. Before I got here, it was a dormant Division-I program. We've been trying to catch up with everybody else.'

Little Rock was 20-32 entering the Sun Belt tournament after being swept by Arkansas State in its final three-game regular-season series.

The Trojans, 6-21 away from home this season, finished ninth in the league in batting (.275) and ERA (5.84).

'We went through a stretch of injuries that killed us, and then we didn't play well for two or three weeks,' Norwood says. 'But I told the guys, 'The tournament is a new season.' We got a win, got some renewed confidence, and kept rolling. When we play like we played last week, we're a good team.'

UALR has faced four NCAA tournament teams - conference foes Troy and Florida International along with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Before the Sun Belt tournament, the Trojans' record against those four opponents was 1-10.

The Sun Belt tourney's most outstanding player award recipient was UALR reliever Garret Graziano, who was 2-0 with a save and a 1.59 ERA in three appearances. The 5-9, 185 senior right-hander has pitched in 23 games this season, starting eight and relieving 15 times. He is 6-9 with a 6.41 ERA and a .311 opponents' batting average.

'We've used Garret as a starter, in the middle (relief) and as a closer,' Norwood says. 'He has a bulldog mentality. He'll do whatever is asked of him. He is a competitor. He will come right at you. He wants the ball. Our team feels very secure in the belief that he will get outs.

'He'll be our first guy out of the bullpen this weekend. He can get you two outs or go four innings. He has pretty much a rubber arm.'

Catcher Myles Parma, a 5-10, 215-pound sophomore, is Little Rock's leading hitter with a .355 average (sixth in the Sun Belt) and a .447 on-base percentage (seventh). He homered in the championship game.

'Myles came to us as an invited walk-on, with some scholarship money for academics,' Norwood says. 'He got 14 or 15 at-bats as a freshman last season.

'It's one of those dream-come-true stories of a kid who has worked his tail off. I'm really happy for him. He deserves all he has gotten this year.'

Other Trojans on the Sun Belt all-tournament team were junior shortstop Greg Garcia (.306 season average, 7 for 15 with seven runs scored in the tournament), senior right-hander Travis Henke (eight innings of seven hit, two-run ball in the win over Troy) and senior third baseman Casey McCollum.

Nationally respected

Little Rock gets pop from other players such as senior second baseman Jason Houston (.327, 70 hits, 41 runs, six homers), junior designated hitter Nick Rountree (.280, six homers, 34 RBIs) and senior first baseman Jake Rowell (.272, six homers, 42 RBIs).

Norwood will choose between the 6-6, 240-pound Henke (1-5, 5.12) and Calvin Drinnen, a 6-1, 215-pound senior right-hander (6-6, 4.82) to start against Oregon State.

'Travis pitched twice for us in the (Sun Belt) tournament, and he threw 55 pitches on Sunday,' Norwood says. 'It's a matter of how he bounces back. We'll make an evaluation once we get out to Corvallis.'

Norwood is looking forward to the challenge of playing the 15th-ranked Beavers on their home field.

'Fantastic opportunity, playing a nationally respected program that has had big-time success,' he says. ''It's another in a line of top-20 teams we've played.

'They're really strong on the hill. They do a good job of moving people around and run the bases well, but they hang their hat on pitching and good defense. We're going to have to be creative to counter that.'

Oregon State's Ratings Performance Index is No. 31. Little Rock's RPI is 156. Can the Trojans pull off another upset?

'I'm not going to predict anything,' Norwood says. 'I know we can take care of ourselves. We've played some pretty good teams this year. We hope to have some success.'

No. 2 seed Creighton (44-14, 15-9 Missouri Valley) and No. 3 seed Georgia (31-30, 16-14 Southeast Conference) will play at 1 p.m. Friday in the double-elimination tournament.

A look at the other two teams in the Corvallis regional:

GEORGIA (RPI 17): Under coach David Perno (10th year), Georgia played the nation's toughest schedule. The Bulldogs had 34 games against ranked opponents, going 16-18. They won at UCLA and USC on an early-season West Coast trip and went 3-2 in the SEC tournament, including a 4-2 win over South Carolina.

During the years, OSU is 6-1 versus Georgia, including a win at the 2006 College World Series. The Beavers beat the Bulldogs two of three at PGE Park in 2008.

Right-hander Michael Palazzone, a 6-2, 195-pound junior (10-4, 3.20) was the only Bulldog named to the SEC all-tourney team. No other starter has distinguished himself on the Georgia staff. Levi Hyams, a 6-2, 200-pound) junior second baseman (.318, four homers, 45 runs, 37 RBIs) and Kyle Farmer, a 6-0, 190-pound sophomore shortstop (.304, seven homers, 53 RBIs), are the top sticks.

CREIGHTON (RPI 29): Ed Servais, in his eighth season, is a four-time MVC coach of the year. The Blue Jays were both the conference regular-season and tournament champions.

They are led by three seniors who are first-team all-MVC: Right fielder Trevor Adams (.392, 14 homers, 57 RBIs, 14 stolen bases), shortstop Jimmy Swift (.276, 3 HRs, 41 RBIs) and right-hander Jonas Dufek (11-1, 2.17 ERA). Dufek was MVP of the MVC tourney.