Wednesday, July 27 was a huge day for both Arkansas State University Three Rivers (ASUTR) and the state of Arkansas junior college athletics.
University chancellor Steve Rook formally announced that his institution will finally have athletics. Located in Malvern, Ark., a town that could use a spark, should seemingly have one. Until now, the state only had six JUCOs with baseball and softball.
Many in the state, including Rook, hope to have an in-state league in the NJCAA down the road. Now planned to be seven schools, who knows what inspiration might be there for others to do the same?
In the SEC, powerhouse Arkansas and head coach Dave Van Horn signed 10 JUCO players in their most recent class. ASUTR will look to produce that level of talent in Arkansas.
For some historical context, the college has been in operation since 1969. There have been no sports on campus leading up to the present. Intel behind the curtain suggested this was in motion for a few years now.
The introduction of esports last year was a singular steppingstone, for the matter. With practically a year to prepare for both teams, the staff has many actions to take. Executively, Rook has brought in Brian Golden as part-time athletics director to get the programs up and running.
Golden isn’t just a random name to locals. He is the current AD for the Malvern school district and has plenty of coaching experience. When ASUTR does join the NJCAA, it will be a Division II program, playing in Region 2. Before bat meets ball, there is a lot to iron out.
The Brand Itself
Branding and representation are as important as ever in-person and via social media. Alongside the presser, debuting was a logo package for the university.
The primary logo has some backstory to it. Designed by Rook’s son, it will be the feature stamp on the teams’ hats (pictured). Featuring an enlarged ‘TR’ bordering the outline of the state, the R holds three rivers which is the attachment to the school.
Those three rivers are the Ouachita, Caddo, and Saline as they encompass the college’s service area. The letters ‘ASU’ lie sideways, attached to the side of the T. For a secondary logo to reflect the mascot, they added a forward-facing eagle’s head and face. Others include a script ‘Eagles,’ a feather, and an eagle talon.
Uniforms modeled at both showings on Wednesday were not final. Both baseball and softball had a cobalt blue with either ‘Eagles’ or ‘ASUTR’ across the chest. Nothing too exotic was used for striping or shapes.
It was noted that a uniform color to match the lighter blue of the university is desired. Branding goes much further than what a team wears. Where a university plays its sports is also a huge selling point.
That aspect is currently a big unknown. Rook does have his options for year one however.
Where to Play and Who to Coach
When 2023 rolls around, both teams will need to find somewhere to play for year one. With no plans to have ready-made stadiums by then, Rook reached out.
Not only did he reach out, but others reached in. A fellow sister university to the Arkansas State system, Henderson State, reportedly offered its facilities. This includes weight rooms and practice fields.
Henderson State plays baseball and softball at the NCAA Division II level. This pairing would last for a one-year minimum as the programs aim to gain footing. Benton High School has also offered its field as places to host home games.
Its head coach is very supportive of the rise, which gave him motivation to offer aid early in this process. Using the service area for home games isn’t ideal, but it’s just one more way to spring the brand.
Another unknown is the coaching search. While flight tracker won’t be blowing up for this one, it’s crucial for longevity. Don’t put it past the chancellor to already have a list of names. There just has yet to be an official naming to this point.
Both Rook and acting Golden do have qualities they desire coaches. The main aspect is an understanding of how talented schools are locally — from the 7A schools down to the 2A.
They need to know not only local schools, but the importance of having local connections. A community of just over 10,000 people, Malvern’s residents must be willing to support these programs. Another desire involves in-state recruiting as a broader spectrum. Arkansas has plenty of quality players for its population.
Early on for any program, the first recruiting class will always be the most important. Odds are that the local players will get their shot immediately. Rook also wants coaches who can build pipelines in bordering states as time goes.
As Hunter Yurachek wanted for Arkansas by getting Sam Pittman, Rook has the same vision. He wants coaches who understand Malvern and central Arkansas to the core — coaches who want to put on their ASUTR outfits every day they come to work. Even in the struggle that will be years one and two, that doesn’t change.
Local Meaning and Recruiting
The closest college with athletics was in Hot Springs — a 20-minute drive from Malvern. National Park College, also a Division II JUCO, has lots of local pull. ASUTR adding a hat into the ring creates the possibility for a rivalry.
That’s exactly what Rook desires and foresees. Creating a healthy rivalry by year one seems silly, but it could be crucial for early engagement. Looking at the rivalry between two Arkadelphia colleges is proof.
Known as the “Battle of the Ravine”, Henderson State and neighboring Ouachita Baptist have a deep, yet respectable disdain for one another. It brings in fans from outside the state while locals pack the stands. Pulling off something to that level would be overly impressive early on.
The secret ingredient might be recruiting battles. Until now, the majority of ASUTR’s service area was up for grabs. National Park could essentially cherry pick who it wanted. That will finally be put on hold.
“Malvern is the center of a hotbed of recruits,” Rook noted Wednesday.
The surrounding communities bring so much to the table that he believes ASUTR “can be competitive.” Whether that’s a shameless plug to gain interest early or not, there is certainly no shortage of talent. Locals to the area can certainly vouch for that.
JUCO at the Division II level is decently generous when it comes down to money. For sports-related scholarships, there are some limits. The only aspect off limits is housing expenses.
Currently, there are no ways to live on campus at ASUTR. Future housing and dorms, however, are another announcement that is in the near future for the university.
Scholarship numbers are also limited to sport. The average team number is around 30 players with 20-24 on scholarship for baseball. Softball comes up slightly short of those numbers.
To combat that and act as a recruiting boost, NIL is already in the works. Deals with excited local businesses are being aligned already in order to bring intrigue early. As long as plans come to fruition, it would be the only two-year college in Arkansas with NIL deals for student-athletes.
That might change rapidly as word grows. As long as things move quickly, Chancellor Rook was sure to say that it gives ASUTR a “leg up” during his presser.
Many well-known locals were in attendance at the 3 p.m. announcement. There were no sour faces about the room. Many, if not all, were glowing at the chance to support college students and the school at large.
That value of community support is what makes two-year colleges go. Rook has more than enough passion for the school he runs. If he can get coaching and support staff on board with the same mentality, ASUTR could be something to see on the diamonds in the coming years. More athletic programs remain a possibility moving forward.
As for the state of Arkansas, this also carries weight. ASUTR is one more JUCO to take the leap of faith toward athletics. If it works out, it could spawn many more hopeful programs.