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Arkansas’ road to Omaha likely goes through former protégé, program

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Long before he built Arkansas into a perennial threat to reach the College World Series, Dave Van Horn showed up in Lincoln, Nebraska, staring at an artificial turf infield inside a stadium so small the school had to ship in additional bleachers for the team’s NCAA Tournament regional games.

Van Horn immediately sought to create an identity: scrappy, gritty, find-a-way, no-excuses baseball — the same tenets the Hogs rode to SEC regular-season and tournament crowns and a No. 1 overall seed this year.

Van Horn’s first Husker recruit? A scrappy, gritty, find-a-way, no-excuses infielder from Conroe, Texas named Will Bolt.

“He was a hard-nosed player,” Van Horn said this week regarding the Huskers’ current head man. “He’s a winner, and I’m really proud of Will.”

If all goes as planned in this weekend’s Fayetteville Regional, apprentice will meet master with a Super Regional trip on the line. The NCAA selection committee apparently has a partiality toward storylines, sending Big Ten champ Nebraska to face the favorite to win it all.

It wouldn’t be the first time Van Horn goes against his former second baseman and shortstop. It also wouldn’t be his first bout against the program he helped put on the map in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The Van Horn coaching tree is thick. But there’s a special bond with Bolt.

“We [still communicate] pretty regularly,” Bolt said. “He reached out to me after we won, I reached out to him after they won the regular-season championship. We keep in touch, we maintain that line of communication.”

In 2001, Bolt caught the final out that sent Nebraska to its first College World Series. He and Van Horn returned to Omaha a year later, further solidifying a turnaround of a Huskers program that never won a conference championship till 1999 — Van Horn’s second year at the helm.

Van Horn went 214-92 at Nebraska, leading the Huskers to 3 consecutive Big 12 tournament championships from 2000-2002. Bolt was a 4-year starter during that run, which saw former CWS site Rosenblatt Stadium draped in home-state red and a new ballpark erected in downtown Lincoln.

In 2002, Van Horn returned to his alma mater, where he eclipsed the 700-win mark last year and has led the Razorbacks to Omaha 6 times. Bolt, meanwhile, jumped right into the coaching ranks, working his way up to assistant on Texas A&M coach Rob Childress’ staff. Childress, who was let go late last month, served as Nebraska’s pitching coach under Van Horn.

In his first full season after a COVID-claimed 2020 campaign, Bolt’s team leaned on the same characteristics he learned while playing under Van Horn.

“I think that’s just who Will is,” former Husker player Justin Seely, Bolt’s best friend and a fellow A&M staffer, told the Husker Online podcast this week. “I think that’s why Will fit at Nebraska playing for coach Van Horn back when we played, and all of us to a degree all fit. When you’re the head coach, when you’re going through recruiting — and Dave is very active in the recruiting process — you want to coach people that are like-minded and that are similar. And Dave did a great job of that. Will is doing a good job of that. Will is molding that team — even the guys he didn’t recruit, he’s molding that team to the like-minded mentality that he has.”

Which is why any angst this week about Nebraska’s NCAA draw isn’t coming from the program’s players or coaches.

It’s rare for a Power 5 conference champ ranked in the Top 25 to be sent to the No. 1 overall seed during regional play. The Big Ten’s lack of nonconference games, however, left fewer data points for the selection committee to chew on.

“It didn’t surprise me that we would get Nebraska,” said Van Horn, who’s in his 18th year as skipper in Fayetteville after starring in his final year of college ball for the Hogs. “It did a few people because they did win an outright conference championship, and a lot of times they’re not going to send a conference champion to such a high seed as a No. 2. I don’t know what went into all those decisions. I don’t know, I just see Nebraska as another quality team that we’re probably going to have to play. It’s going to be good to see Will and some of the guys, but I didn’t get all emotional on one side or disbelief on the other. Nothing surprises me now.”

The opinion from Van Horn’s former middle infielder: Who cares?

“No matter where you go, who you play, it’s gonna be a good challenge,” Bolt said. “It’s five wins to Omaha, no matter how you draw it up.”

When you’ve been coaching since the 1980s like Van Horn has — after a brief pro career, he returned as a grad assistant at Arkansas — you’re bound to forge a vast network of former players and coaches. But few members of it bear such an uncanny resemblance in approach to the patriarch as Bolt.

That’s why they called him “Little DVH” back in Lincoln during his playing days. The nickname still brings a slight grin to Van Horn’s face.

“He got his shot at Nebraska, and he’s taken full advantage of it,” Van Horn said. “He’s got coaches that he trusts that he hired. They’re doing a great job recruiting and getting those kids motivated.

“They got after it up there this year.”

The teacher and student have met plenty of times before. Nebraska went 3-1 against Arkansas in 2013 and 2014 with Bolt serving as Darin Erstad’s associate head coach. Van Horn’s Hogs were 9-6 against Texas A&M from 2015-19 when Bolt was an assistant in College Station.

This weekend, though, there’s a whole lot more on the line.

“It’s always a little weird when you’re playing somebody in your tree,” Bolt said, “but this weekend, it’s gonna be all about the baseball. There’s really no doubt about that.”

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