FAYETTEVILLE — Dave Van Horn likes a good steak.
The Arkansas baseball coach said as much in the hallway underneath TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha last Friday. His team’s season had just ended with the disappointing 3-2 loss to South Carolina in the College World Series, but Van Horn wasn’t making plans for one final stop at an Omaha steakhouse.
He was making a point about his program as it got another taste of what it takes to win a title.
“When you come here you want to get back here even more,” Van Horn said. “You just get a taste of it.
“It’s like eating a good steak. You’ve got to have more. We’ll be hungry. We’ll be working hard.”
Van Horn’s goal when he came to Arkansas 10 years ago was to lead the Razorbacks to a national championship. He hasn’t achieved it. Yet.
But the last two trips to the College World Series are a sign the Razorbacks are slowly getting there.
Remember when Van Horn was working through his own personal 0-for-Omaha drought? It seems like so long ago now. At that point, winning just one game at the College World Series was a big win for the Hogs.
The 2009 run, which included that elusive victory in the opener against Cal State Fullerton and the dramatic follow-up to beat Virginia and stay alive a few days later, readjusted Arkansas’ thinking under Van Horn. It actually was possible to win a couple of games in Omaha, stick around town for awhile, and compete for a national championship.
A pitching shortage ultimately led to Arkansas’ end that season and made Van Horn reconsider how to build his program for the future. It was apparent in 2012, when the Razorbacks relied on its pitching staff to work its way into the driver’s seat for the championship series, thanks to a 2-0 start in Omaha.
It didn’t last. South Carolina trumped the Razorbacks, getting even better pitching in two elimination games to knock out the Razorbacks and reach its third straight championship series.
But the point remains: Slow. Steady. Climb.
“We’re one big hit away from going to the championship series,” Van Horn said of his team’s 10-day stay in Omaha this season. “Hopefully next time we get here we’ll get that hit.”
No one — from players to coaches to fans — wants to accept steady progress in a win-now world. If championships are there for the taking, then they must be taken. So, in that regard, missing the opportunity after being in the driver’s seat is a little disappointing for the Razorbacks this week.
But winning a national title also isn’t as easy as snapping your fingers and making it so.
If that’s the case, Florida State’s Mike Martin would’ve celebrated a few times in his 21 trips with the Seminoles. Florida — which has been the most talented team in the country the past couple of seasons — would’ve celebrated at least one title in that span, too. It even took South Carolina’s Ray Tanner 13 seasons before enjoying one of the most storied three-year runs in college baseball.
Van Horn is convinced that type of breakthrough is just around the corner as Arkansas works toward its next goal. The Razorbacks have never made consecutive trips to Omaha, but plan to be back in 2013.
“I think we can,” Van Horn said when asked about returning to Omaha in 2013. “How are we going to get back here? We’ve got to fill in spots. We’re going to have to figure out what type of team we are.”
Pitching will lead the way once again with a strong group of juniors like Ryne Stanek, Barrett Astin, Brandon Moore and Colby Suggs back. Van Horn and his staff knows there must be more punch in the lineup, too, hoping the nucleus of returners Dominic Ficociello, Joe Serrano and Brian Anderson will be aided by newcomers like catcher Blake Baxendale.
Van Horn said everyone involved is motivated after the 2012 experience at the College World Series.
The Razorbacks were so close to the best-of-three championship series. And the national title.
“You get into that series, anything can happen,” Van Horn said. “I hope we get back here soon — hopefully next year — and take another shot at it.”
It’s like eating a good steak. The Razorbacks relished their taste of the College World Series in 2012. But the only thing that will satisfy their craving now is being able to devour the whole thing.
Robbie Neiswanger is a Fayetteville-based sportswriter who leads Razorback coverage in all sports for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. His e-mail is email@example.com