FAYETTEVILLE – Less than a month away from his 21st Opening Day in charge of the Arkansas baseball program, Dave Van Horn isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
Apart from the No. 1 recruiting class he’s signed for the 2024 season and the state-of-the-art facilities now at his disposal, the 62-year-old coach still seems to be having fun doing what he’s done for well over half his life.
Van Horn appeared loose as he shared funny stories and cracked jokes with reporters during his annual season preview press conference Friday afternoon at Baum-Walker Stadium.
He made it clear there was still work to be done and questions that needed to be answered over the three weeks of preseason practices leading up to the Feb. 17 opener against Texas, but he also exuded the confidence you’d expect from a coach with a loaded roster and consensus preseason top-10 ranking.
For the first time since the Fowler Center opened in 2014, Van Horn will allow reporters to observe the team when weather forces them inside from Baum-Walker Stadium, where practices and scrimmages have always been free and open to the public.
Of course, he cautioned that the track athletes — with whom the baseball team shares the facility — practicing shot put can be “dangerous,” before adding with a smile that they are “very loud” and “like to scream a lot.”
When discussing the College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, where the Razorbacks open the season, Van Horn joked that the team would have hitchhiked to the event two years ago when winter weather pushed it back a day after the long pandemic-induced offseason.
He also told a funny story about freshman Jayson Jones swinging away in a 3-0 count in the bottom of the final inning of a fall intrasquad scrimmage in which his team trailed 7-1 and crushed it with a 117 mph exit velocity for a home run. run.
“He didn’t even look at me for a sign, so it wasn’t really fair, because the pitcher just threw it right down the middle and then he hit it 117 mph, and hit it halfway up that grass in left-center ,” Van Horn said, laughing at the memory. “It was kinda funny actually, looking back on it. Just kinda shaking our heads. So that tells you something right there.”
Despite that incredible talent and being one of the highest-ranked freshmen Van Horn has ever gotten to campus, Jones is not a lock to start on Opening Day — and it’s his pitching staff that he openly said was the deepest he’s ever had.
Such confidence means that not only is an eighth trip to the College World Series in play, but so is the legendary coach finally breaking down the wall and winning the program’s first national championship. That won’t be an easy task when half of the SEC is ranked in the top 10 of at least one preseason poll, but the Razorbacks should once again be in the thick of things in 2023.
Clean Bill of Health
It sounds like Arkansas baseball will begin its preseason practices at full strength, as Dave Van Horn said his team was “all healthy.”
That includes super senior Brady Slavens, who missed all of fall ball after having offseason surgery to repair an ulnar nerve instability in his elbow.
He was able to take some batting practice before the Razorbacks’ final Fall World Series game, though, and is still on track to start on Opening Day.
“I think he’s in really good shape,” Van Horn said. “Arm’s fine. He’s throwing 100%. Probably better than he ever has honestly. He’s fielded the ball real well so far in our drills. We’ve done some live at-bats off of pitching. … For him to come out on really his first few live at-bats in a while, he looked real comfortable.”
As evidence of just how comfortable Slavens looked, Van Horn said he hit one pitch to the opposite field that, according to TrackMan, would have traveled 400-plus feet.
Although the 2023 Arkansas baseball roster lists Slavens as an outfielder, Van Horn assured reporters that he is a first baseman and that listing is a typo.
When the Razorbacks wrapped up their fall practices, Van Horn said sophomore right-hander Brady Tygart — their closer in 2022 — “needed a break.” Fast forward a couple of months and he’s ready to go for the start of the preseason.
“I feel like he’s doing really well,” Van Horn said. “He’s gotten bigger with age and conditioning, weight room and all that, but really just growing up. … You see a freshman and then you see him a year or two later and you’re kind of like, ‘Wow, he was a little kid when he first got here.’ It’s kind of amazing to watch the development.”
Another player who missed time in the fall was outfielder Jared Wegner, a transfer from Creighton. He got off to a hot start before being sidelined with an oblique injury.
Wegner returned to action, but cooled off offensively. Coming back from the break, though, he is good to go and has actually been in Fayetteville longer than most of his teammates because he wanted to escape the cold weather of his home state of Nebraska.
“He seems to be really healthy,” Van Horn said. “The pro guys are in town, most of them pitchers, (and) he’s got some live at bats off those guys and some of our guys, mostly our guys.”
2023 Team Captains for Arkansas Baseball
A trio of returnees — outfielder Jace Bohrofen, second baseman Peyton Stovall and left-hander Zack Morris — have been elected team captains for 2023, Dave Van Horn announced Friday. Two of those three players met with reporters afterwards and the honor clearly meant something to them.
Bohrofen is a junior, but in just his second year with the Razorbacks because he began his career at Oklahoma before transferring in the last offseason. He was widely projected to start, but a freak injury during non-conference play derailed his season.
“I guess now I’m kind of an older guy being a junior here, but being in the program in one year, it just means a lot,” Bohrofen said. “We had a lot of guys leave last year and with all the new guys to come in and vote for me and Stovall and Zack Morris as captains, it’s a great honor.”
Stovall was a heralded prospect coming out of high school and projected by some as a first-round pick, but turned down the pros to play at Arkansas.
Multiple outlets tabbed him the Preseason SEC Freshman of the Year, but he struggled much of the year before heating up in the postseason. He is now one of only two returning starters in the field, along with Brady Slavens.
“Being a sophomore and being young, I just felt blessed and accomplished,” Stovall said. “I think ultimately, guys are going to look towards us, because we’ve been here. We have so many new guys. So we’re all honored to be able to hold that title.”
Morris, who could not attend the press conference because he had class at that time, is a senior who could have been drafted last summer but instead opted for another year with the Razorbacks.
Van Horn said the voting was pretty close and that even newcomers received quite a few votes.
“The crazy thing about that voting is that there were three or four other guys that were right there,” Van Horn said. “A couple of ’em were transfers, so they like each other a little bit, and they respect each other already, so that’s really good to see.”
Expanded Roster in 2023
In normal years, college baseball teams are limited to 35-man rosters. Those are the only players eligible to play during that given season, with any excess players having to redshirt.
Since the pandemic, though, things have been anything but normal. That continues this season, as the 35-man limit is back in place, but with some flexibility. Teams are allowed to expand their roster up to 40, but only if they have returning players using their extra year of eligibility.
The Razorbacks have just one such player: Brady Slavens. Because he is a super senior, Arkansas can have 36 active players this season instead of 35, Dave Van Horn confirmed Friday.
There are currently 40 players listed on the Arkansas baseball roster, so four players must redshirt in 2023.
Watch Dave Van Horn, Jace Bohrofen and Peyton Stovall answer questions from the media:
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