Dave Van Horn

Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn is a true pro and leader. He doesn’t usually show his emotions, though the frustration level poured out during game three when the Arkansas dugout got on home plate umpire Joe Burleson and an assistant coach got tossed.

Dave Van Horn says he’s OK. He says he’s had harder losses, tougher breaks. He says he’s moved on.

I’d love to believe Van Horn. But ... man.

It’s hard to imagine the Arkansas coach didn’t stay up all Wednesday night, thinking about the foul popup that dropped.

Hard to think that Van Horn won’t be haunted by the image that he was that close to winning a national championship Wednesday night.

Yes, it was Thursday night. And Oregon State had wrapped up a relatively easy 5-0 victory to win the national title.

But the Beavers had not made the Wednesday night play moot. Not at all.

The Game 2 foul ball was shown on ESPN replays all Wednesday night and through Thursday. It was the topic of conversation on the airwaves and in the tailgates and on the way to TD Ameritrade Park on Thursday.

Arkansas could have erased it with a win Thursday. But the Razorbacks came out a little flat, and couldn’t touch  Oregon State’s Kevin Abel. And so the legend grew.

That will be a play that will live in CWS lore, probably right behind Warren Morris’ 1996 walk-off homer, and somewhere in the mix. It will be a play we always talk about, always bring up when you ask for the most famous memories in CWS history. It’s a play that impacted the national title. And it was so unusual.

It was even crazier here because Van Horn was part of it. He will always be remembered here as the Nebraska coach, the man who taught the Huskers how to win big and dream big.

And here he was, one out, one popup, from being a national championship coach — here, in Nebraska.

So, so close.

Van Horn was asked about it afterward. There wasn’t much to say from an Arkansas standpoint. The Hogs had a terrific year. Their fans made a CWS statement. In the end, their bats couldn’t come alive when they needed them.

There was a lot to be proud of, but the Razorbacks traveled home with the hardest kind of carry-on bag: What if?

How was the coach processing it?

“I’m OK,” Van Horn said. “I feel bad for the kids. If I don’t win another game, life is going to go on. I wanted those kids to have that championship. I wanted to win a championship for Coach (Norm) DeBriyn, the former players, the state. I’m good. My life’s great, to be honest with you. I’m a lucky individual.

“It just makes me want to get back, take another shot at it. I’m on the phone recruiting this morning. It never stops. The phone’s usually on. How are we going to get back here?

“We got to fill some holes. We got to get better. Break every player down, some kids have to learn what an off-speed pitch is, some guys gotta learn how to steal a base, some have to become better athletes. We’ve got to mix with the new with the old and take another shot in ’19.”

Van Horn is a true pro and leader. He doesn’t usually show his emotions, though the frustration poured out during Game 3 when the Arkansas dugout got on home plate umpire Joe Burleson and an assistant got tossed.

But he has always been good at being level headed. He preached that at Nebraska, and it’s an approach that has served him well. If he’s shaken, if he’s rattled, he won’t let you know.

I was trying to think of a similar heartbreaking loss Van Horn had at NU from 1998-2002. The closest thing might have been when the Huskers were up 1-0 in the 2000 super regional at Stanford, needing one win to make their first CWS. But Stanford turned on the jets and won the next two. It wasn’t heartbreak so much as the Cardinal righting the ship.

After Thursday’s press conference, Van Horn shrugged off the “toughest break” question and defended his players.

“I’ve had a ball drop in front of the mound, two outs, end up losing the game by a run,” Van Horn said.

“That was a really hard play. My right fielder got a late jump. I talked to him about it, he got a late break. Really, in a perfect world, it’s his ball. It’s dark, windy. Carson (second baseman Shaddy) was running, probably too fast. Ball came back. You know, if it was an easy play to make, that would have been hard to handle. It was a very difficult play.”

Perfect Van Horn. Have your players’ back. Deflect the pain. Move on.

There aren’t many cases of bounce-back from heart break in CWS history. One was former Miami coach Jim Morris, who just retired. Morris was one out from the 1996 national title and watched another Morris, named Warren, ruin it with one swing.

Jim Morris and Miami would win two national titles (1999 and 2001) in Omaha. It does happen.

This was Van Horn’s seventh CWS and his most successful. The Hogs got a taste. Arkansas and its legion of fans will be back. Van Horn will get another shot.

Bet they’ll put in some extra work on pop fouls.

Some final thoughts:

» Sources at the CWS said there’s strong sentiment in NCAA baseball to use a pitch clock and tweak the format in future series.

Weather delays are one thing, but there were too many four-hour games during this series. The championship game Thursday was heading that way early, with the first three innings taking 90 minutes. Thanks mostly to OSU’s Kevin Abel pitching a complete-game gem, it ended up at 3:05.

So they played the final six innings in 90 minutes. Wow.

A pitch clock is definitely in order. The SEC (20 seconds) and Big 12 (15 seconds) used them this season to good reviews. Mound visits are a problem, too. But putting the pitcher and batter on the clock —penalizing the pitcher a ball and the batter a strike — would be good for the CWS and the game.

I mean, if college basketball players can work with a clock, so can college baseball players.

» There’s talk that the NCAA is considering tightening the format of the CWS. Playing doubleheaders during elimination week. And, starting the championship series Saturday night, then Sunday afternoon and Monday night, if necessary.

I would add that starting the CWS on a Friday also would help. Omahans love that first Friday. It’s been tradition.

Weather pushed this one to Thursday, but instead of electricity you could see and feel the fan fatigue. The crowd of 19,323 was certainly good, but the bleachers were far from full and there empty seats throughout. Clearly, many Arkansas fans went home. As Van Horn noted, Thursday night was their 15th night in an Omaha hotel.

Let’s give the teams, and the fans’ wallets, a break.

» Finally, well done, Oregon State. The popup that fell merely opened the door. The Beavers then kicked it in.

We’ll still talk about the play. But OSU will always have the trophy.

Sports columnist

Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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(1) comment

Peter Piper

ONCE again, stuttering Tom is embarrasses himself with his clueless columns. Will Van Horn recover? How about this, Will Tom Osborne ever recover from that missed 2 point conversion? I just don't know how he can do it. . . . . Tom Shatel, go back to Missouri where your inane words may sound like you have a clue. . in Nebraska, you don't.. . #JERK

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