Masterful coaching? Smoke and mirrors? Luck? If you asked Arkansas baseball skipper Dave Van Horn what has his team tied for the SEC lead with two weekends to go, he might admit to the last one and maybe acknowledge there’s been a little of the second statement as well. But keen baseball fans know what he and his staff have done coaching-wise is nothing short of amazing. Especially considering the aggressive injury bug that has bit the Hogs this season.
There was a lot to like about this roster starting early in the spring semester. Experienced pitching depth that had MLB scouts drooling along with an older, veteran position player group that could run, hit for average, hit for power and throw. Outside of who was going to catch and play shortstop, things looked bright for the preseason #8 ranked team by D1Baseball.com.
The much discussed season-ending injuries to Jaxon Wiggins and Koty Frank before conference play had even started were significant. Toss in Brady Tygart’s two-month absence coupled with playing time lost during the meat of SEC play for Jared Wegner, Tavian Josenberger and now Peyton Stovall and Van Horn has had a bevy of possible All-SEC players on the shelf. Oh, and don’t forget Dylan Carter was having a remarkably good season out of the pen and will also require Tommy John surgery after having to be removed against Texas A&M a couple of weeks ago.
Ruinous injury after injury to legitimate star players.
And somehow the Diamond Hogs just keep on winning. And winning. And winning.
Nevermind dropping the midweek games to lesser opponents or the fluke in Athens when the decent, but not great, Georgia Bulldogs swept the Hogs (two of those games were decided by a single run). Notably, that series in Athens was without Wegner, Josenberger sustained his hamstring injury there and starting catcher Parker Rowland was out with a tweaked back.
No excuses. No wishing what might have been. No “woe is me” from the Razorback dugout. Zero.
Regardless of what the coaching staff thought behind closed doors when discussing how the Hogs were going to get through the SEC gauntlet with a cobbled together lineup and key arms missing, they obviously didn’t dare let that trickle down to the players. “Next man up” is cliche as can be but that worn-out saying definitely applies here.
That ability to step in and make a contribution towards winning baseball is a testament to how Van Horn runs his program. Players know coming in they must compete for a spot on a perennial upper tier, Omaha-worthy team. Not every kid who puts on a baseball uniform will be a fit for the Razorback program. The coaching staff knows what kind of player will fit into how Van Horn runs a program and the random contributions this season from guys way down the roster showcases the validity of his way to run a college baseball program.
Building a roster in the day and age of the transfer portal comings and goings is an art and that shows up in a season such as this one. Putting a complete, competitive team out there is another. Filling colossal gaps in your lineup and managing a very short pitching staff makes coaches lose sleep at night. With all that hardship, the Hogs sit atop the SEC with two tough weekends left in the regular season. Incredible.
DVH has said he wants his players to have a blue collar mentality appreciative of playing in white collar facilities. The toughness and competitiveness his teams are known for is imprinted in the players during fall ball. Arkansas scrimmages a ton in the fall and that is where the coaching staff gets a feel for what they have. Fall ball is where the players develop a mindset of competing day in, day out and learning what high-level D1 baseball is all about. JUCO stats don’t matter. High school stats don’t matter.
I am not sure any team in the country could suffer these kinds of injuries to star players and keep chugging right along like the 2023 Razorbacks. Granted, the SEC is probably down a little bit. Anytime SEC West foes Ole Miss and Mississippi State are this bad, the league tilts down a tad. Because of that, according to D1Baseball.com, Arkansas’ SEC intra-conference schedule ranks 12th out of 14. Side note: Vandy, who shares the overall lead with Arkansas, has played the weakest schedule thus far.
Tennessee has run very hot and cold despite having several elite pitching prospects. Everyone’s preseason favorite LSU is beginning to show a chink in the armor as they have had three key pitchers go down with season-ending injuries as well. As good as that offense is, their ability to pitch well past clear-cut Pitcher of the Year Paul Skenes is fragile at best.
The high level consistency of Razorback baseball under Van Horn is a testament to the guy in charge, the assistants he assembles and the players he recruits and coaches up within the program.
Give Dave Van Horn His Due
So that leads me to begin the campaign for DVH getting in on the conversation for SEC coach of the Year (and possibly the national award). He’s won SEC coach of the year twice before in 2004 and 2021 but neither of those seasons matched up to the difficulties of this one. The 2004 team won the SEC West and advanced to Omaha. And who can forget the incredible run going wire to wire as the No.1 in the regular season in 2021 only to fall one run short of the College World Series.
Sure, the campaign may be a tad early with a couple more weeks left in the regular season but what the Razorbacks have done this year is beyond remarkable. Injuries are part of sports but Van Horn has dealt with more than his fair share this season.
If the Razorbacks finish the season on top of the SEC West and possibly the overall, he should be a lock for the conference coach of the year. UK’s’ surprisingly good season will get Kentucky baseball coach Nick Mingione some votes. LSU’s Jay Johnson and Vanderbilt’s Tim Corbin have high MLB draft picks all over the place but neither has done as much with as little as the 2023 version of Razorback baseball.
If the Hogs somehow make yet another run to Omaha, DVH should be a legitimate contender for national coach of the year. Despite all the success on the hill, Van Horn has never earned the award while at Arkansas. He was recognized in 2001 by Baseball America after resurrecting Nebraska’s largely irrelevant program with two trips to the College World Series. Van Horn also won a national coach of the year award after his one and only year in Division II when his Central Missouri State squad won the 1994 national championship.
Winning the Baseball America National Coach of the Year award gets a little trickier as the Wake Forest Demon Deacons (39-7) are loaded and having an incredible season. They currently sit atop the rankings after LSU’s stumble at Auburn. Wake Forest baseball coach Tom Walter has been building a giant for a few seasons and it has all come together thus far in 2023.
Interestingly, Arkansas has some ties to the Demon Deacons climbing the college baseball ladder as pitching coach Matt Hobbs came from Wake Forest after the 2018 season and last year’s star outfielder, Chris Lanzilli, transferred in from Wake Forest.
Going Beyond SEC Coach of the Year
Unless Wake stumbles down the stretch, national coach of the year seems like a lock for Tom Walter. Especially given the SEC fatigue the rest of the country feels across nearly every sport. Walter would be 100% deserving, too, assuming Wake Forest keeps it up. DVH was in the driver’s seat for the award in 2021 but with the Hogs falling short of Omaha, the award went to Mississippi State’s Chris Lemonis. Two seasons later, Lemonis may be out of a job.
Still, I wonder if Walter, Corbin, Johnson or even last year’s winner Mike Bianco of Ole Miss could have done what DVH has with all the injuries if dealt this same hand? I believe Bianco and Lemonis are both showing that is a resounding “no” given their 2023 campaigns.
Maybe it will take Van Horn winning the elusive national championship to garner the national award? I’m sure he would like that monkey off his back as that is just about the only thing he hasn’t done at Arkansas. And he would tell you he would rather have the national championship over national coach of the year a hundred times over.
Interestingly, the all-time winningest coach in NCAA baseball history, Florida State’s Mike Martin, never won a national championship but has won two Baseball America National Coach of the Year Awards (2012 and 2019). His 2019 award came in his final season and some may recall his Seminoles eliminating the Razorbacks from the College World Series.
Coming up short in postseason awards or a disappointing NCAA tournament shouldn’t matter to the fan base. What Van Horn has accomplished up to this point is nothing short of miraculous. I can guarantee he’s earned additional respect (if that is even possible) outside the program and fan base for what his program has done this season.
Getting some players healthy and playing well enough these last two weeks to earn that coveted national seed will go a long way towards making a run to Omaha. Then it gets down to matchups, who can play well in the big moments and, of course, coaching.
Coach of the Year or not…I’d take DVH over anybody in the country.
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