FAYETTEVILLE - The last time they were publicly spotted together at Baum Stadium, Nate Thompson was coaching third base and the hitters for Fayetteville Regional winner Missouri State while Dave Van Horn head coached the Fayetteville Regional runner-up Razorbacks.
Wednesday Van Horn and Thompson were together at Baum on the same Arkansas staff with Thompson introduced to Arkansas media after being on the road since Van Horn hired him on June 16.
Thompson, 34, left Coach Keith Guttin’s Missouri State staff to replace Tony Vitello, Arkansas’ recruiting coordinator/hitting coach/third-base coach, hired to be the head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers the day after SEC West runner-up Arkansas, 45-19 was eliminated in the Fayetteville Regional.
In turn Van Horn said he waited until the night after Missouri Valley Conference champion Missouri State was eliminated by TCU in the super regional at Fort Worth to ask Guttin for permission to talk with Thompson.
Van Horn said he similarly waited on Mississippi State’s 2016 season to end in a regional final before taking to then Mississippi State pitching coach Wes Johnson who shortly thereafter became Arkansas’ pitching coach.
Thompson is a 2006 baseball grad at Dallas Baptist before coaching three years as a volunteer assistant at Nebraska and four years assisting at Hutchinson (Kan.) Junior College before his 2015-2017 stint at Missouri State that included the 2017 regional and 2015 super regional at Baum Stadium while among others signing Missouri State All-Americans Jake Burger (Chicago White Sox first-round draft choice) and Jeremy Eierman (the shortstop whose 2-run home run beat Arkansas, 3-2 in the 2017 Fayetteville Regional championship game.
Van Horn believes he has replaced one young, energetic, recruiter and hitting coach with another as Thompson succeeds Vitello.
“I truly believe Nate is the right person and will be a perfect fit for us,” Van Horn said. “Outstanding recruiter. Loves to work with hitters. Those were the two things I really really wanted. I just thought if we can get Nate to come here it would be huge plus for us and we won't skip a beat. We'll keep right on rolling along like we have this past season.”
Thompson seems equally excited joining Van Horn’s bandwagon.
“ When I heard Tony had taken the job at Tennessee, I was hoping to be considered,” Thompson said. “But we were in the middle of trying to win the Super Regional and everything. Didn't hear anything obviously until after it was over and then was very excited to talk to Coach Van Horn and learn more about the program.”
Guttin, Van Horn and Thompson said, understood Thompson’s decision after Van Horn had left a message to call him.
“We had a good talk,” Van Horn said. “He was really good with it. He had nothing but good things to say about Nate.”
Thompson expressed appreciation for his now former boss.
“I can't thank him enough for everythign he's done for me personally, giving me that opportunity at Missouri State and really trusting me,” Thompson said. “He’s been so good to me. He's a very good man.”
Originally, it appeared Thompson would be inheriting a program morphing from power, draft eligible juniors Chad Spanberger, Luke Bonfield and Carson Shaddy combined for 37 of Arkansas’ 83 home runs, to more small ball and speed.
However second baseman Shaddy and left fielder/DH Bonfield did not get drafted and are returning as seniors while junior to be All-SEC catcher Grant Koch and sophomore-to be center fielder Dominic Fletcher, All-SEC Freshman team and named to various Freshman All-American teams, return after hitting 13 and 12 home runs.
“Personally it doesn’t matter to me,” Thompson said of the power hitting vs small ball and speed offensive philosophies. “It’s just all about run production. So whether it’s us driving the ball or just finding a way to compete and grind and get on base and being opportunistic on the base paths playing small ball, I don’t care. My style is to try and exploit each guy’s strengths and help them understand what they do well as a player and how they can fit into a good role for themselves and us as a team to score runs.”
Van Horn said Bonfield is playing summer ball in the Cape Cod League and that Shaddy, his hitting and weight wearing down at the close of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, devotes this summer to hitting the weights and getting stronger.
Shaddy’s return prompted sophomore to-be second Jaxon Williams, lettering as a freshman reserve in 2017, to transfer for opportunity to be a 2018 junior college starter.
Colby Bolden, a right-handed pitcher from Texarkana, Texas, so far not signing professionally as a draft choice of the Tampa Bay Rays, signed Tuesday with the Razorbacks, Van Horn said.
Van Horn said returning junior-to-be staff ace Blaine Knight of Bryant, pricing himself so highly as a draft eligible 21-year old that he wasn’t drafted until the 29th round by the Texas Rangers, continues to work on getting stronger and continues asserting he’ll return with the Razorbacks.
“The last thing he told me was, ‘Coach, don’t worry about it. I’ll be at school,” Van Horn said.
Collegians selected earlier this month in the Major League draft have until July 7 to sign with the teams drafting or else presumably return to school since they won’t be draft eligible again until the June, 2018 draft.