Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year twice.
Hogs aim for spot with USA
Arkansas' Heston Kjerstad (18) runs the bases after hitting a solo home run against Texas Tech in the second inning of an NCAA College World Series baseball game in Omaha, Neb., Monday, June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
FAYETTEVILLE -- University of Arkansas catcher Casey Opitz, outfielder Heston Kjerstad and shortstop Casey Martin have received invitations to try out for USA Baseball's National Collegiate Team, according to a news release.
Razorbacks Coach Dave Van Horn -- Team USA's manager in 2014 -- said he believes Opitz already has made the squad.
"They've been following him a lot lately, and I think they feel like he could be the best defensive catcher out there that's a junior-to-be," Van Horn said of the Team USA staff. "As far as I know, he's on the team. Doesn't have to make the team."
Van Horn has praised Opitz for his defensive skills -- particularly his ability to throw out base stealers (22 for 46 this season) and frame pitches -- and being a team leader.
"Casey didn't play much as a freshman, but he made a huge jump," Van Horn said. "We knew it was in there. He's a guy that I think a lot of guys respect.
"Guys gravitate to him. He's fun to be around. He's got a lot of personality to him."
Optiz batted .243 on the season (43 for 177), but .265 in SEC play (27 for 102). With runners in scoring position, he batted .313 (20 for 64).
"He's going to make a jump hitting-wise," Van Horn said. "There's no doubt in my mind."
If Kjerstad and Martin don't make Team USA, they'll play in the Cape Cod League, Van Horn said.
Six Razorbacks have played for Team USA, most recently outfielder Dominic Fletcher and relief pitcher Matt Cronin last year.
"There's conference calls all the time with a group of coaches and Team USA personnel, and they evaluate," Van Horn said of how the roster is chosen. "They have video, they have people working, they have every at-bat -- the good and the bad. How they hit off this guy who's throwing 95, how lefties hit off the lefties, can they hit a breaking ball against a lefty.
"There's a lot of input from professional scouts and GMs because Team USA is very much funded by Major League Baseball. They don't want any conflicts. That's why they only take kids that weren't drafted right now. They take kids that are going to be draft eligible next year."
Team USA, with Louisville Coach Dan McDonnell as its manager, will play five intrasquad Red-Blue games beginning Thursday, then play five games against Cuba at sites throughout North Carolina and play on the road against Chinese Taipei in Taiwan and at Japan.
Jordan McFarland, who batted .238 as a junior filling in at first base and designated hitter in 24 games this season for Arkansas, hopes to start at a different college team in 2020, Coach Dave Van Horn said.
"He'd like to go to another Division I school and hopefully get an opportunity to play right away," Van Horn said. "Obviously, on our end, we'll do whatever we can to help him get eligible right away.
"He just wants to play. I don't blame him. He's a good kid. He did a nice job for us just keeping a great attitude all year. Hopefully, he can find the right fit for him."
Among the Razorbacks playing summer baseball, according to the UA, are Matt Goodheart, Zebulon Vermillion and Coby Boulware in the Cape Cod League; Christian Franklin, Marshall Denton, Elijah Trest, Jacob Burton and Caden Monke in the California Collegiate League; and Curtis Washington Jr. in the Prospect League.
Arkansas' nonconference schedule for the 2020 season will include an appearance in the Shriners Hospitals for Children Classic at Minute Maid Park in Houston where the Razorbacks will play three Big 12 teams. They'll play Oklahoma at 3 p.m. on Feb 28, Texas at 7 p.m. on Feb. 29 and Baylor at 7 p.m. on March 1.
The Razorbacks are one of three SEC teams in the field along with LSU and Missouri.
Dave Van Horn said he can't recall a year in which the Razorbacks were likely to hang on to every incoming signee, as Arkansas is in a solid position to do this year.
"You always expect to lose one or two," he said. "I'll tell you in a year or two how good it was. But it's nice knowing we're going to have a good group of freshmen coming in. We've got a couple of [junior college] guys coming in and maybe a transfer. It's what you've got to do to keep your program going.
"You've got to get those good young players in there and try to get them enough playing time. Hopefully, some of them can really contribute for us next year. Try to keep guys happy, but at the same time, you've got to keep winning in this league."
A potential impact player for the Razorbacks in 2020 is outfielder Chet Allison, who hit .446 at Fresno City Community College with 11 home runs and 50 RBI.
Allison, 6-2, 220, has shown he can hit well with both an aluminum bat and a wooden bat, Coach Dave Van Horn said.
"He turned down a lot of money to the Dodgers," Van Horn said. "He went to a Dodgers workout and they offered him pretty good, plus school. He wants to play in our league. He thinks he can double his money, and I think he can, too. Maybe more than that.
"A lot of times when the JC kids get drafted and get offered a couple hundred thousand, they're gone. So we appreciate him having the confidence in himself to come in here and do what we think he can do."
Boost for Tony V.
Tennessee Coach Tony Vitello, an Arkansas assistant from 2014-17, received a contract extension and raise last week after leading the Vols to their first NCAA Tournament since 2005.
Vitello's extension is through the 2024 season with an average annual salary of $621,000, not including incentives. His salary is $650,000 the final two years of the contract.
"Tennessee has had some issues over there keeping coaches and getting it right," Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said. "I think they feel where Tony has gotten the program, they don't want him to run off -- and they'll probably have to battle that over the next 10 years or however long they want to keep him. Good for him and good for them."
Good guy Martin
Mike Martin got the last of his 2,029 victories in 40 seasons as Florida State's coach when the Seminoles beat Arkansas 1-0 in the College World Series on June 15 in Omaha, Neb. He retired from coaching when the Seminoles' season ended.
"More than anything that he's a good guy," Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn, whose Razorbacks twice beat FSU in super regionals, said of how he'll remember Martin. "You can be a good guy and still win."
Martin, 75, led FSU to 17 CWS appearances but never won a national championship.
"I'd take that," Van Horn said. "I'd rather win a championship, but I think we all learn from Coach Martin that you can stay in one place a long time. You just have to treat people right and you have to win."
Van Horn's eight CWS appearances -- two at Nebraska and six at Arkansas -- are now the most among active coaches.
"I mentioned this in Omaha, that the day of coaches being able to take a job at age 35 and stay there until they retire at a school like Arkansas or Florida State, I know that's going to be rare," Van Horn said. "That's going to be tough to do something like that.
"Pretty amazing career. I think [Martin] got married right after high school, drove to Tallahassee with his wife and never left. Pretty amazing story."
Van Horn said he was glad Mike Martin Jr., a longtime FSU assistant coach, was promoted to replace his father.
"I think he deserved it," Van Horn said. "He's been the one out recruiting and beating the bushes and put together a lot of those good teams for him, or helped. He earned it."
Sports on 06/25/2019
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