First impressions mean something, right? Or maybe not. For instance, there was the first time University of Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn saw a 16-year-old outfielder named Heston Kjerstad, who’d eventually be one of the best players in Razorback history -- and is now the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft by the Orioles.
Kjerstad (pronounced KERR-stad) was playing in a high school tournament at Dallas Baptist University in the summer before his junior year at Amarillo Randall High School. He knew Van Horn would be at the game and he figured he’d try to use the opportunity to sweep Van Horn off his feet and become part of one of the best programs in the country.
“I just played too hard,” Kjerstad said. “I stole third base and overslid the bag and got tagged out. I threw a ball to the backstop trying to show him what I could do. I don’t remember doing much at the plate, and after the game I remember telling my dad, `I don’t think I’m going to Arkansas.’”
Actually, he’d impressed Van Horn in all sorts of ways.
“That was before I understood what coaches were really watching for,” Kjerstad said. “He knew I could play. He just wanted to see how I handled the game.”
Van Horn had accumulated enough data to understand that Kjerstad had the talent to play at Arkansas. What he was looking for that day was something less tangible.
“I just liked the way he played the game,” Van Horn said. “I’ve coached guys who were really talented, and I didn’t know if they loved the game. Some of them have played in the Major Leagues. With Heston, there was no doubt. He loves it. He loves the process, the work, the competition, all of it. He’s a really good teammate and a really good guy.”
Van Horn offered Kjerstad a scholarship then and there, and three years later he was a big reason the Razorbacks were going for a third straight appearance in the College World Series before the season was cancelled. Overall, Arkansas was 139-60 in Kjerstad’s three seasons.
In 145 games, Kjerstad put up video game-like numbers. He hit .332 as a freshman, .331 as a sophomore and was hitting .448 when this season ended after 16 games. He entered the Draft ranked No. 10 on MLB Pipeline's list of the Top 200 Draft prospects -- but Baltimore jumped on Kjerstad right after Spencer Torkelson went first overall to the Tigers.
Van Horn calls him “the best left-handed hitter in the country.” With a pronounced leg kick, Kjerstad has also gotten better every season as he focused on pitch recognition and plate discipline. In 16 games this season, his on-base percentage was .513, his slugging percentage .791.
“It would have been fun to watch what he did this season,” Van Horn said. “I think he was going to hit 20-25 home runs [after hitting 29 in his first two seasons combined].”
Years from now, they’ll be remembering some of the balls Kjerstad hit at Arkansas.
“We’re at San Diego State his freshman year,” Van Horn said. “And we’re playing Arizona and it’s about 9 o’clock at night. The Marine Layer has rolled in, and it’s just smothering every fly ball.”
Only Kjerstad, playing in his fourth college game, got hold of one. When it left the bat, pretty much everyone in the park figured it would be a routine fly ball to left-center.
“Only it just kept carrying,” Van Horn remembered. “He hit it into the teeth of that Marine Layer, and it just disappeared right out of the park. I remember thinking, `Oh my God, this kid has something special.’”
That was Kjerstad’s first collegiate home run.
“It was surreal,” he said. “It just kept going. It was also the game-winner in a 1-0 game.”
And there was the ball Kjerstad hit against South Alabama in early March this year, before the pandemic ended the season.
“At our home park, the wind can blow in pretty good from right field,” Kjerstad said. “And it was cold that day.”
“It was blowing so hard it looked like you’d have to hit it twice to get it over the fence,” Van Horn said.
Until Kjerstad crushed one.
“I got it pretty good,” Kjerstad said. “Lucky for me, I didn’t get it too high so it stayed under the wind.”
His physical gifts, the biggest thing that sets him apart from others, are his bat-to-ball skills. That is, his hands are so quick that he’s seldom fooled on pitches.
“It’s incredible,” Van Horn said. “He can drive the ball to all fields. He has power to left-center like no one I’ve seen.”
Arkansas hitting coach Nate Thompson laughs about the MLB scout who gushed, “Heston is really locked in.”
“Not really,” Thompson told him. “He’s just really good.”
About the only time he struggled -- struggle is a relative term to a .343 hitter -- was his sophomore season when Van Horn believed his pitch recognition could be better.
“That’s just development,” Van Horn said. “He had a couple of at-bats that really frustrated me, and I let him know it. I don’t like seeing guys waste at-bats.
“He’s a thinker and figures things out. This year, I saw him laying off that 2-2 slider to get a better pitch. In our fall scrimmages, we had a lot of guys throwing 92-93 mph, and he was just hammering ‘em.”
Kjerstad has been back home in Amarillo working out and helping out in his parents' business (Water Still) since the season ended. Looking back on it, he’s thankful for his three seasons with the Razorbacks.
“I’m a way different player, a way different athlete,” he said. “I’m bigger and stronger, but the mental side of the game is the biggest thing. I feel like I’ve improved so much playing in the SEC against all that competition. That teaches you how to handle everything. Now whatever happens, happens. I’m ready to roll with it.”
“He’s going to play in the big leagues a long time,” Van Horn said.