A-State opens tough slate with nation's No. 1 team

Arkansas State shortstop Jake Gish beats a Southern Illinois baserunner to second during a game last season at Tomlinson Stadium. The Red Wolves’ season opener at top-ranked Ole Miss has been pushed back a day to Wednesday, with first pitch set for 4 p.m.

JONESBORO — Arkansas State opens its 74th baseball season Wednesday against the nation’s No. 1 team, as ranked by Baseball America.

Ole Miss moved to the top of Baseball America’s rankings on Monday. The Red Wolves have two games this season with the Rebels, both in Oxford, Miss., and other challenges on what head coach Tommy Raffo considers to be probably the toughest non-conference schedule ASU has faced on his watch.

ASU’s schedule includes seven games against teams currently in Baseball America’s Top 25. In addition to their two trips to Ole Miss, the Red Wolves have a three-game series at No. 25 Oklahoma and one each at No. 6 Arkansas and No. 8 Mississippi State.

The non-Sun Belt Conference slate also includes five games against Illinois State and Missouri State, which were picked second and third, respectively, in the Missouri Valley Conference, also considered a top 10 league in recent seasons.

Raffo said he worked with assistant coach Rick Guarno, who handles ASU’s scheduling, and athletic department administration to put together a schedule that ended up being different from what was initially planned.

“Obviously budgets were affected for everybody and we had to make adjustments to be able to do what we needed to do,” Raffo said. “We have some home games early in the season that we already had, but we had to make some adjustments with some others and we are receiving guarantees going away, which is very helpful.

“In the meantime, you couldn’t ask for more exciting competition to play against and to put our guys in that arena to compete against the best, or Top 25 teams, I think it’s important for the program. Not only is the Sun Belt very difficult, and we only have 24 Sun Belt games, but the non-conference is probably the most difficult we’ve faced just from a purely numbers standpoint.”

Longtime opponents such as Memphis and Southeast Missouri State are not on this year’s slate. ASU also does not have a home game against Ole Miss, but Raffo said the Rebels will play in Jonesboro again in 2022. ASU was scheduled to play at Ole Miss today, but the game was pushed back a day because of field conditions in Oxford.

Testing protocol for COVID-19 has to match up in non-conference play, Raffo said. Sun Belt teams test twice per week, Raffo said, and others might test only 25 percent of their team each week.

“There are budget issues with that and they have to match us if they’re lower than us, and we have to match anybody who is above us,” Raffo said. “We’re on par with the SEC and the Big 12. Some of the teams we played in the past might not have been.

“Memphis can’t play midweek games once they start conference series. There are so many oddities out there. It was like a puzzle for about a month and a half, Coach Guarno trying to put this together, and obviously we got the snow for the first weekend.”

ASU was supposed to open with three games against Missouri State over the weekend. The Bears will now come to Jonesboro March 9-10 for two games.

The Red Wolves will play Arkansas for the first time May 11 in Fayetteville. Raffo said ASU will play Arkansas in a two-game series in 2022.

The Razorbacks are also playing Arkansas-Little Rock, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Central Arkansas this season. They opened with victories over Texas Tech and Texas before playing TCU on Monday night.

“You have a very competitive coach there in Dave Van Horn that it doesn’t matter who he plays, he just wants to play. He’s always told me that,” said Raffo, who took over at ASU before the 2009 season.

“The way the story unfolded is the first week I took the job here, he called and said, ‘Hey, I want to play, but my hands are tied. I’ll call you as soon as they become untied.’ Within 24 hours of the announcement of Arkansas being able to play, he called up and said, ‘Hey, let’s schedule.’”

ASU’s 24-game Sun Belt schedule does not include East Division favorite Coastal Carolina or Georgia State, which was picked last in the East.

West Division favorite Texas State was No. 30 in Collegiate Baseball’s preseason poll.

“It might be the top end of the Sun Belt I’ve seen in the years I’ve been here, and I’ve seen some very good leagues maybe one through four or half the league,” Raffo said.

“This year, toss your hat in. I agree with Coastal and I agree with Texas State being at the top of each division, but I’m like, ‘Wow, this is going to be a really fun league to play in.’”