FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS– As Arkansas closed out a 6-2 win over second seeded Nebraska on Monday night, it put an end to one of the coolest and most electric regionals of the NCAA Baseball tournament opening weekend. Although Arkansas won the regional, the real winners of the weekend, boarded a plane home on Monday morning. The NJIT Highlanders qualified for their first ever NCAA Baseball tournament by winning the America East regular season title, their reward, was a trip to Baum-Walker Stadium to face the #1 overall seed and SEC Champion Arkansas. Baum-Walker is regarded as one of the best stadiums in the country and is one of the loudest and most electric atmospheres in all of college sports, with the vaunted “Hog Pen” beyond the left field wall.
The Highlanders knew the atmosphere they were going into, and actually held their own for most of Friday afternoons opening game against Arkansas. After jumping out to a 3-2 lead through 3 innings the wheels fell off in the 4th inning when Arkansas was able to plate 7 runs, to take a 9-3 lead. Many teams could have just rolled over and packed it in, but the Highlanders stayed in the game, plating 5 runs in the final 3 innings of the game. Although they would go on to lose the game, they had won over the hearts of the Arkansas fans.
Anyone who follows SEC baseball knows that Arkansas fans can be some of the most rabid ruthless fans in the country. What some people may not have known is that Arkansas fans are some of the most hospitable fans as well. This would become evident as the weekend went on. As the Highlanders took the field Saturday against Northeastern, over 1300 miles from their Newark, New Jersey campus, they had a home game, not only just a home game, but they had an entire SEC stadium cheering for them. The Arkansas faithful had adopted the Highlanders as their own. If you were walking by the stadium without any idea, you would have assumed it was an Arkansas home game.
When NJIT closed out their 3-2 win over Northeastern, their first ever Division 1 Tournament win, the stadium erupted. Their fun was just beginning though. After this win, reports of what was going on in Fayetteville started to circulate through college baseball twitter, they were quickly becoming the darlings of the tournament. After their game they would be welcomed into the Hog Pen by Arkansas fans, where the would be treated to drinks and all the barbecue they could want. The NJIT players would participate in the Arkansas tradition of “Calling the Hogs” as well as meeting up with Arkansas men’s basketball coach Eric Musselman.
Although NJIT would bow out of the regional, with a loss to Nebraska on Sunday, they made memories that will last them a lifetime, and have made fans in the most unlikely of places. They may not have won the regional, but they were the biggest winners of this weekend. Hats off to the Highlanders, and hats off to the Arkansas fans for continuing to be amazing hosts. They definitely proved why they have the number 1 fans, and number 1 stadium in the country.
Congratulations to the NJIT Highlanders on a great season, and all of college baseball looks to see you back in the tourney in the future.