HOUSTON — Arkansas fell into plenty of early holes during Southeastern Conference play, suffering first-game losses in seven of its 10 weekend series. The Razorbacks stayed true to form last week, too, dropping their SEC Tournament opener to Hoover, Ala.

HOUSTON — Arkansas fell into plenty of early holes during Southeastern Conference play, suffering first-game losses in seven of its 10 weekend series. The Razorbacks stayed true to form last week, too, dropping their SEC Tournament opener to Hoover, Ala.

So it’s no secret Arkansas has a bad habit of being slow starters. But it’s something it wants desperately to end with NCAA Regional play beginning today.

“It’s huge,” Arkansas third baseman Matt Reynolds said. “We need to stay in the winner’s bracket.”

Arkansas (39-19) will press to open the four-team Houston Regional on a good note when it plays Sam Houston State (38-20) at 1 p.m. today. The regional game at Reckling Park is the first of a doubleheader, which includes No. 1 seed and regional host Rice against No. 4 seed Prairie View at 6 p.m. The losing team from each game will play an elimination game at 1 p.m. Saturday, while the winners meet at 6 p.m.

No one in NCAA Regional play wants to deal with the unenviable task of needing to win four games in three days to advance to an NCAA Super Regional. It’s a rough path Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn said his team needs to avoid.

“We’ve got to win game one,” Van Horn said earlier this week. “We can’t look past anybody.”

Van Horn set that tone by naming staff ace DJ Baxendale (7-4, 3.02 ERA) the Razorbacks starter for today’s game. There’s no doubt the junior is Arkansas’ most experienced postseason pitcher, playing a big role the previous two seasons. He has been at his best the past several weeks, too, rebounding from some early-season struggles to reclaim his role as Arkansas’ ace.

“It’s good knowing I’m going to go the first game,” said Baxendale, who enters the regional allowing just two runs in his past three starts. “Sam Houston State’s a great team. So we’re going to try and go in there and get after them right away, and we’ll go from there.”

The Razorbacks learned the lesson the hard way last season, when Van Horn decided to hold Baxendale for a second game start in the Tempe Regional. But the anticipated Arkansas-Arizona State winner’s bracket game didn’t materialize after Charlotte beat the Razorbacks 3-2 in the opener.

Arkansas bounced back to win their next two games and finally met the regional host. But its pitching was exhausted by the workload to get there, which played a role in the Razorbacks’ season-ending 13-4 loss to the Sun Devils.

“Playing that double header on Sunday, if you keep winning, it’s tough,” Reynolds said. “Especially in Houston where it’s going to be 90 (degrees), but it’s going to feel like 105. So (today) is a big game. “You want to get off on the right foot, get that confidence going and get all those jitters out.”

Arkansas will get a chance to accomplish it against Sam Houston State, which received an at-large berth after winning the Southland Conference’s regular season championship. The Bearkats are in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in six seasons and have been dangerous in the past, most notably reaching the regional final at Ole Miss in 2007.

“It’s going to be tough,” Baxendale said of the Bearkats. “At this point in the season, any team you play is going to be good. If you make the field of 64, you’ve had to have shown the NCAA that you’re a quality team. You can’t look past anybody. You’ve got to go out and just get the job done.”

Baxendale and the Razorbacks remain confident they’re still an Omaha-caliber team despite going just 16-16 in conference games this season. There’s no doubt Arkansas has the talent to reach the College World Series later this month, but must put together one of its best stretches of the season to get there for the third time under Van Horn.

“I think our players are going to be on a mission,” Van Horn said.

Winning the first game in a regional is important to accomplishing that goal. Consider this: Arkansas has lost a regional opener four times since the current Regional/Super Regional system has been in place (2003, 2006, 2008 and 2011). The Razorbacks have never recovered, failing to reach a Super Regional.

So Arkansas knows a good start will be vital today.

“We haven’t played our best baseball yet,” Reynolds said. “Hopefully it starts (today) and continues on throughout the postseason. When we’re playing our best baseball, we think we’re one of the best teams in the nation.”