Arkansas eager to put end to national championship drought

Posted: June 14, 2018 at 4:33 p.m.

Former Arkansas baseball coach Norm DeBriyn (left) speaks with coach Dave Van Horn Thursday, June 1, 2017, during practice at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville. Teams spent the day practicing ahead of today's opening round of games in the NCAA Fayetteville Regional baseball tournament.

FAYETTEVILLE — Dave Van Horn has never been one to shy away from a direct answer to a direct question.

In fact, if the Arkansas coach is known for anything outside of all the winning teams he's put together during his 30-year coaching career, it's for his honesty.

So it shouldn't come as any surprise that Van Horn has been direct this week when talking about the possibility of the Razorbacks winning their first national championship. Because unlike some of the teams Van Horn has taken to the College World Series in the past, this one arrives at Omaha with a better chance than most.

"They just have no weaknesses," South Carolina coach Mark Kingston said about No. 5 national seed Arkansas (44-19) after it eliminated the Gamecocks in super regionals.

This year's trip to the College World Series is the ninth in school history and the fifth in the last 16 seasons under Van Horn. Only five schools have been more and come away empty handed than Arkansas, which has come as close as finishing as the runner-up in 1979.

Since then, the school has become a regular on the national scene, first under former longtime coach Norm DeBriyn and then even more so under Van Horn, who played for DeBriyn. It was in Fayetteville where Van Horn later started his family while a graduate assistant under DeBriyn, and he succeeded his mentor in 2003 when he left Nebraska.

Van Horn earned national respect for leading the Cornhuskers to two College World Series appearances during his five seasons in Lincoln. It's his ties that stretch back more than 36 years to Arkansas, though, that have made the 57-year-old Van Horn appreciate and recognize what a national championship would mean to the state.

"It wouldn't even be about me," Van Horn said. "It would be about all the players that have come through here, it would be for coach DeBriyn."

The list of talented players who have come through Baum Stadium during DeBriyn and Van Horn's time is remarkable, with Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel of the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi the most recent former Razorbacks to earn attention in the majors.

This season, Arkansas had 11 players selected in the major league draft, led by starting pitcher Blaine Knight, a third-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles.

Knight (12-0, 2.84 ERA) grew up in Bryant, Arkansas, just a few miles away from where another former Cy Young Award winner, Cliff Lee, was raised. Like Lee, who was in attendance at last weekend's super regional, Knight knew from the time he was young that he wanted to play for the Razorbacks.

He also believes that Arkansas is overdue to win it all.

"Absolutely," Knight said. "This program has been elite since Norm DeBriyn was here ... It's just a matter of time. It's a matter of time for every team before they win something big, and I think this year is our year."

The Razorbacks open play at the College World Series against former Southwest Conference rival Texas on Sunday. They reached Omaha after beginning the season ranked in the top five of most polls, and they overcame expectations and pressure from a dedicated fan base. Arkansas averaged 8,875 fans during home games this season, and 11,217 were on hand to watch Monday's clincher over South Carolina.

Second baseman Carson Shaddy, who had an early three-run home run in that game, was once one of those fans — having grown up in Fayetteville and regularly attended Arkansas games and practices.

Reaching Omaha isn't all that surprising for him. Neither is the idea that the Razorbacks might finally break through and return to Fayetteville with a long-awaited title.

"I always thought there's definitely potential for it to happen," Shaddy said. "Just growing up and having the ties here, I'm excited for what's to come."