Skip to main content

By Nate Olson | Photo by DeWaine Duncan

My 10-year-old son, Luke, is a big St. Louis Cardinals fan. He probably watched at least three Cards games a week last summer. But he doesn’t dream about playing for the Redbirds. No, his dream, or should I say his goal, is to play baseball at the University of Arkansas.

Like a lot of other Arkansas kids, Luke has seen Dave Van Horn turn the Hogs into a college baseball power with the kind of facilities most programs can only dream of. Those factors have allowed Van Horn to build that proverbial fence around the state that former Arkansas head football coach Houston Nutt referred to when he came to Arkansas in 1998. There aren’t many holes in Van Horn’s fence. 

“[Van Horn] does a good job of finding kids early that fit his program well,” said Hogs signee Easton Swofford, a highly regarded shortstop from Southside Bee Branch High School. Now that they have built those facilities, there is no reason for an in-state kid to want to go anywhere other than Arkansas. 

“[Arkansas] has so many things to offer with [Van Horn], the winning and the facilities. You have all of those things within how many miles from where you live, and you can’t find that anywhere else in the country.”

Swofford, a senior, and Van Horn were both in North Little Rock last Monday for the Downtown Tip-In Club meeting. It's normally a basketball club, but one week a year they discuss baseball and Van Horn speaks. Swofford was honored as the Player of the Week. 

The affable Van Horn delighted the crowd with several stories and a Q&A with emcee Rex Nelson. Among the topics — Cayden Wallace, the sophomore star from Greenbrier, and in-state recruits.

“I love to have the in-state kids — it just makes it better,” Van Horn said. “The in-state kids, we play four or five games a week, and they play hard all weekend. A lot of the kids take Tuesday night off, but the in-state kids want to win on Tuesday night, too, man. They don’t want to embarrass anybody. 

“They are Razorback through and through, and we need to instill that in the guys that come from out of town.”

Swofford, who is ranked as the No. 2 prep baseball prospect in Arkansas, the No. 37th shortstop in the country and the 164th overall prospect in the country by Prep Baseball Report, visited with Van Horn after the meeting Monday but says he hasn’t talked with his future coach much. However, he likes that he has witnessed Van Horn backing his players with umpires and how he handled the dust-up with Tennessee head coach Tony Vitello, who once was Van Horn’s assistant.

“He has his players' backs, and that is important,” Swofford said. “That means a lot to me.”

If you’re not paying close attention, you’ll miss Bee Branch, the small community with a population of around 2,000, situated on Highway 65 north of Conway. Southside Bee Branch High School is so small it doesn’t offer football. So, a young Swofford grew up on baseball and basketball. He said he showed talent on the diamond at a young age but at 10 or 11 got passed up by kids who were bigger or stronger. 

At 12, however, things changed. 

“I hit a growth spurt and started doing situps and pushups and that separated me from other players,” Swofford said. “My work ethic separated me.”

It was just two years later, a few months before his freshman year of high school, that the Arkansas coaching staff took notice of him playing in a showcase tournament. He later attended an Arkansas prospects camp and was offered a scholarship. Swofford committed almost immediately. 

Swofford is already a legend in his hometown and is now mentioned in the same breath as two other Bee Branch heroes — the McKnights, Jim and Jeff. Jim, Jeff’s father, played briefly for the Chicago Cubs in the early 1960s. Jeff, who died of leukemia at 52 in 2015, spent six seasons with the New York Mets and the Baltimore Orioles in the 1990s.

“I’d like to play [Major League Baseball], but the big thing I am focused on is winning a national championship at Arkansas,” said Swofford, who is the only Southside Bee Branch athlete in school history to ink with the University of Arkansas. 

An interesting thing about many of the in-state recruits is they come from small towns, and Van Horn isn’t afraid to offer them early. When Luke played in an All-Star tournament at Lonoke, he was amazed when I pointed to the field that former Hogs star Casey Martin played on. 

Camden, Ashdown, Pine Bluff and even Bee Branch — the Hogs staff mines the entire state and locks them in. 

“I grew up an Arkansas fan in all sports, so playing for them was definitely a dream,” Swofford said. “It was an easy decision.”

Swofford has traveled the country playing with his summer team, the Rawlings Prospects, and at other showcases. Playing Class 2A high school baseball might seem like small potatoes for a player of Swofford’s stature and experience, but a 5-2 loss to Woodlawn in the Class 2A state championship game last spring still sits in his craw.

“I just really want to have a good senior season,” said Swofford, who also pitches. “We lost in the state semifinals my sophomore year, and we were one of the top teams in the state [in 2020], but that was the COVID year, and last year we lost in the finals. I want to get back to the finals. I am taking this season very seriously.”

Last Monday, Luke, who plays third base and pitches for his travel team, wanted to make sure Van Horn knew he wants to play at Arkansas “when he grows up.” The veteran coach just smiled and said, “That’s great; keep working hard.”

No doubt, he’s heard that a few times before. Most every in-state baseball player wants to be a Hog, and that is a good thing for Van Horn and his juggernaut of a program.