Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
Hunting for more
Van Horn aims to keep Arkansas among the nation’s best programs
Dave Van Horn throws batting practice Sunday, June 19, 2012 at Bellevue East High School in Omaha, Neb.
FAYETTEVILLE - Carefree days of timeless pheasant hunting are in Dave Van Horn’s future.
Just not his immediate future.
Van Horn’s cherished hunts on the seemingly endless fields and plains of South Dakota will have to remain a limited late-November treat for the foreseeable future as the 53-year-old enters his 12th season as head baseball coach at his alma mater.
“Right now, I feel like I’m as motivated as I’ve ever been,” said Van Horn, whose Arkansas Razorbacks open the college baseball season Friday against Appalachian State at Baum Stadium.
“I truly believe my better days are in front of me, because you don’t lose the mental side of it.
“Yeah, you get older and you might not look as young, but in this sport I think it’s more about how you handle kids and how you handle that dugout and in-game situations.”
The Razorbacks have plenty of things to figure out going into the season. They have to build a virtually new pitching staff to replace a group that led the nation last season with a 1.89 ERA.
They also must replace three starting position players from last season, and key players like Jake Wise and Tyler Spoon are trying to come back from injuries.
Arkansas is projected to finish fifth in the SEC West by the league’s coaches, but veteran pitching coach Dave Jorn said he sees a renewed vigor in Van Horn’s approach to what some have projected as a challenging season.
“I think when you’ve got a bunch of new guys - I mean, it’s not like you have a bunch of returners, especially on the mound - you’ve got to pick it up a little bit,” Jorn said. “It’s just about competing and grinding and trying to be consistent in how you go about your business every day.”
Junior Brian Anderson also has noticed a difference. He said a spry Van Horn has been giving him personal instruction on playing second base, the coach’s old position.
“He moves pretty well,” said Anderson, who split time last season playing in the infield and in the outfield. “He’s always out here running. He takes care of himself.”
Van Horn’s tireless approach to going about his business of building a national championship contender has yielded consistently strong results. The Razorbacks have played in the NCAA Tournament in each of his 11 seasons and have three College World Series appearances (2004, 2009 and 2012), including a third-place finish in 2012. They have won one SEC regular-season championship and three SEC West titles, and seven of his 11 teams have finished first or second in the rugged SEC West.
The Razorbacks have been first or second in the SEC each of the past four years, and recruiting has continued to be strong. In fact, Van Horn felt good enough about the program to commit roughly six weeks this summer to serving as head coach of USA Baseball’s college national team.
“The program’s in great shape,” said Van Horn, who has a record of 444-245 (.644) at Arkansas and 1,029 career victories with the Razorbacks, Nebraska, Northwestern (La.) State, Central Missouri State and Texarkana College. “We expect to be good every year.
“Really, since 2007, we’ve been pretty good pretty much every year. Whether we finished first or third or second, we’ve been hanging around the top. And it’s a tough league.”
Van Horn said the program’s expectations have been imprinted on each recruiting class as it rolls into Northwest Arkansas, although keeping perspective is key in the Razorbacks’ program.
“If you start taking yourself too serious and start thinking you’re better than you are, this league will beat you up,” he said. “I think we’ve learned how to handle the league mentally and we’ve passed that on to our kids. I think the program’s in good shape.”
Recruiting is in position to improve as well, Van Horn said, noting that the school’s new indoor training center for baseball and track, which is scheduled to open in May, helped sway recruits.
“It already kicked us over the top on a couple of kids in this first class and it’s not even completed,” he said. “It was basically showing them pictures and talking about it.Now we’ve got something to look at.”
It’s all part of an effort to keep Arkansas among the top contenders in the SEC and nationally. Van Horn said he considered last season’s 39-22 campaign, which ended with a loss to Kansas State in the NCAA regionals, a squandered opportunity after the team went into the season with high expectations.
The Razorbacks opened the season ranked among the top five in the major college baseball polls. USA Today, the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and Collegiate Baseball all picked the Razorbacks No. 1 going in the season, while Perfect-Game.org had Arkansas No. 2 and Baseball America had the Razorbacks No. 3.
Arkansas’ pitching lived up to its billing behind starters Ryne Stanek, Barrett Astin and Randall Fant and reliever Colby Suggs, all of whom were taken in the major-league draft. But the Razorbacks struggled to score runs and finished the season batting just .260, which ranked tied for 212th in the nation.
“It bothers me,” Van Horn said. “It still bothers me. I mean, you have a team ERA of 1.89, you need to get to the World Series. Or let’s put it like this: We should at least get to a super regional. We had to go on the road, but if we’d have won a few more games we could have played at home.”
Van Horn will admit the coming season might be his biggest rebuilding project in a while.
“It is probably in the last seven or eight years, probably since when we first got here,” he said. “The thing is, the kids that are still here, at least the position player guys, they’re pretty good. They’re better than people give us credit for, I think maybe nationally. If we have our best lineup on the field, we’re going to compete pretty good and we’ll score some runs.
“Now, pitching wise, this is probably one of the bigger rebuilds because we lost all of that. We lost all three starters, we lost middle relievers, and we lost Suggs, our main closer.”
That means Van Horn has plenty more work to do on the baseball field before turning more of his attention to those fields in South Dakota.
Van Horn wants to delve more frequently into pheasant hunting, and he expects in 15 or 20 years to make more than his standard five day trips to South Dakota in late November to enjoy one of his few hobbies outside of baseball.
“I didn’t get introduced to a shotgun until I was at Nebraska, so I was in my 40s,” he said. “I was reluctant to go out, and when I did, man, I was hooked. Now I’m kind of the guy that shows people how to do it.
“I think it’s a combo of you do a lot of walking and you’re out in the middle of nowhere. Those birds are fast and they’re there. … I’ve almost been run over by a deer out laying in the corn and they’re huge up there. We’ve seen foxes. I’ve been sprayed by a skunk up there. I mean, flat-out smoked by a skunk. I’ve seen badgers. I’ve seen rabbits that you only see on TV that are so big, jackrabbits.
“It’s just kind of a good getaway for me because it’s so far away.”
Still, he’s never that far away from Fayetteville. Van Horn said it’s very likely that Arkansas will be his final coaching spot.
“Oh yeah, I love Arkansas,” he said. “Obviously I went to school here. I played ball here. I met my wife [Karen] here. She went to school here and got her degree in architecture here.
“Coaching at the University of Arkansas is about as good as it gets as far as support - fan support, support from your administration, the way we travel, the facilities we get to play in.
“Now we’ve got this indoor facility, which we desperately needed to help us develop players and to also recruit the best players nationally.”
Sports, Pages 17 on 02/13/2014