Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A two-time graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Biletnikoff Award.
Van Horn enjoying USA experience
Dave Van Horn works with players during a practice June 19, 2014 in Cary, N.C.
FAYETTEVILLE While the national soccer team jets across Brazil, a different Team USA is embarking on bus rides through the Carolina pines.
The USA collegiate baseball team is in the midst of nine games in nine days. The Red, White and Blue Tour began at USA Baseball's headquarters in the Raleigh suburb of Cary, will travel as far south as Columbia, S.C., and as far north as Hampton, Va. - some 1,125 miles in all.
This isn't as glamorous nor does it come close to receiving the attention of the World Cup, but there's still something about putting on the stars and stripes, and representing your home country that makes this experience unforgettable for the more than 30 college players and coaches on the trip. The games against teams from summer collegiate leagues are getting Team USA ready for international play next month.
The man charged to lead the team this year is Arkansas' Dave Van Horn, who is assisted by three other college head coaches. Still waiting for four players who were in Omaha for Wednesday's College World Series finale, Van Horn looks around at a group of what he calls future big leaguers, some of who he believes will even be all-stars. It's even plausible some could return to the organization in future years for the World Baseball Classic.
"I'm enjoying being around these players," Van Horn said. "They're all very serious about it and want to make the team. This isn't a normal summer ball feel for them. I can tell by looking at some of them that they're a little bit nervous and they're worried. These are all the best players on their team and they want to make this team and stay here.
"It's just an honor to put on that uniform."
This is Van Horn's second experience working with Team USA, having also served as an assistant coach three years ago when the team didn't have to leave the states. It won't be that way this time as Team USA will play all-star teams from China and Japan in North Carolina beginning next week before a half-month stretch of games in The Netherlands and Cuba.
"It's a little more serious," Van Horn said. "As an assistant coach you're basically taking care of your duty whether you're an offensive coach coaching third or a pitching coach trying to figure out your rotation. Being a manager, it's put on you to make decisions and try to keep guys in the lineup so they can get a fair shake. There are only about 10 kids who have made the team and the rest of these guys are trying out. Everyone here is very good."
Among the 33 players trying out for the 24-man roster during the trip is Arkansas' Trey Killian. The right-hander had an invitation to the prestigious Cape Cod League this summer but jumped at the opportunity to try out for the national team.
Killian pitched well in his only appearance for Team USA on Wednesday, striking out seven batters in three innings in a game against the Wilson Tobs . The Mountain Home native will find out this weekend whether he'll make the trip overseas or spend the rest of his summer seaside in Massachusetts.
"It's an honor being here with Team USA and to get the trial, and it'd be amazing to make the team," Killian said. "If not, the Cape was good to me last year and Wareham is a great place to be for the summer. I know a lot of guys that are on the team up there. If I don't make the team here and have to end up there, that will be fine."
Van Horn isn't shy in saying he'd like to see Killian make the final roster of 24, of which 12 are pitchers. The right-hander will be the Razorbacks' ace next season and the sort of competition he would see in international play would only benefit Van Horn's team back home.
"It's nice to have a player or two from your team on a team like this, mainly for their experience to be around some of the top players in the country," Van Horn said. "For Trey to have that experience it's huge for him in his development, as much mentally as physically, to know he can compete with those guys day-in and day-out and be a part of the team."
Similar to the players he's coaching, Van Horn said he'll also have a chance to take something away from being around some of his peers. He is familiar with all of his assistant coaches, having coached against all three: Pepperdine's Steve Rodriguez, New Mexico's Ray Birmingham and Texas A&M's Rob Childress, who was a longtime Van Horn assistant at Texarkana Community College, Northwestern State and Nebraska.
"You learn just little things here and there," Van Horn said. "It may be a base running technique or how they run their defense in certain bunt situations. I could go on and on.
"It's almost like going to a workshop for your profession. It's fun."