It's amazing how far a fan-base can come in such a relatively short time. Mostly because all of the current fans remember all too well the futility prior to what we might call the "Van Horn Era". A definite lack of expectations other than to fail and fans that were already thinking to next year even before one year had barely commenced.
Now, after years of conference dominance, two consecutive trips to the college world series, not even losing the one and only Arkansas native and a Hawaiian mound magician could sway the Husker baseball faithful to think all was lost and it was back to being the Husker team of old.
Even now with Anderson in his first year, a pitching staff that is still learning as it goes while struggling with injuries and a line-up of some old faces, but more than a few new, the mentality was that getting back to Omaha wasn't impossible, rather it was just a matter of time.
Ok, it wasn't that confident a mind-set, but with both Anderson and Childress already having been on the staff under Van Horn and the players consistently voicing how confident they were in them, it seemed like at least mentally, this team wasn't going to drop a notch.
And physically, well, I think the fact that NU made it to the CWS last year at all was a testament to those playing and in charge as talent-wise, it was a consistent belief prior to last year that , that particular team just didn't have the horses to go the distance. They lost their best save guy in Thomas Ott, their two best base-runners in Stern and Cole and Dan Johnson was no longer part of the mix. Oh, and they lost Shane Komine for a good part of the season.
Yet, they made it in spite of themselves and yes, because of themselves as well.
This year, this team has a lot more talent, is probably as close to the savvy on the base-pads as they were with the dynamic duo as they have ever been and power-wise, well, Matt Hopper alone has been emphatic as well as dramatic most of the season. His rebirth alone has been Dan Johnson-like and more. On the mound, nobody has yet seen the prolific success of Ott in terms of saves since Thomas was on the mound, but overall, the staff has been more consistent in closing teams out.
Aaron Marsden has picked up where Komine left off in incredible style, posting 11 strikeout games twice and a 12 K effort against the best hitting team in the conference, the Baylor Bears.
Simply putting it, Anderson's squad has done what all great teams do, pick it up when stars leave, making way for new stars to be born.
Amongst those that will be etched in people's minds is Alex Gordon. Foregoing the draft to be a Husker, he has done nothing in his first year but shine at the plate and in the field. If it weren't for Matt Hopper's miraculous career-ending season, Gordon might be THE talk of the town, but instead and more positively, he's a major part of the conversation.
That's the good thing about this regular season that ended with the Huskers being the outright conference champs. It's been a mutual effort, front to back, plate to mound as not any one Husker made it happen, but the compilation of efforts from starters and those deemed as role players within the NU system.
One might argue that in a Mike Anderson system, there are no true role players as his ever-changing line-ups have given even the so-called non-starters a good deal of time with the bat and the glove. Childress also has been no stranger to shuffling his line-up with great frequency and has proven his unpredictability, using Tim Schoeninger, dubbed the guy they hoped would be their save guy for the year, as middle-relief on occasion and yes, even as a starter.
NU's baseball team has been predictable and unpredictable all at the same time, but you can hardly argue with the results. Nebraska is already a game better than they were the first year they went to the college world series and their mark of 39-17 going into the Big XII tourney last year pales to their current mark of 42-14.
Statistically, this team isn't hitting the ball as well as the Husker squads of the last four years prior to this one and their ERA is only marginally better than it was the season before this. The fielding percentage is comparable and in some cases, not as good as years recent to the current year and the power numbers again, they simply don't make this club stand out to most any other during the Van Horn era.
I'll tell you what the difference is and much of this derives it's success from veterans like Leise and Hopper to the coaching efforts of Anderson, Childress and Sawyers. It's consistency.
Not until the end of the season last year did NU manage to put a double-digit win-streak together. This year, they did it even before the season was half-way through. Last year, when everyone was continually frustrated at the amount of one-run losses as they were 4-9 on the season in that category, NU came out on the plus side of those contests this year, going 5-4. That doesn't sound that impressive, but it shows two things. When they won, they won convincingly most of the time and they didn't put themselves in position to lose most of those close games.
That late-season winning streak of last season I eluded to earlier, that was the longest, but it was the longest by almost double, that a winning streak of 5 that came very early in the season. This year, NU had winning-streaks of 8,12, 6 and they won 4 in a row on more than one occasion.
And this year, NU was as dumbfounded by the injury bug as they have been in their recent run of success, the Huskers losing easily their second best pitcher in Brian Duensing and their emotional leader John Grose for part of the season as well.
Players like Daniel Bruce were struggling at the plate while Joe Simokaitis was having legendary struggles in the field. Always though, someone picked up the slack. Whether it was Alex Gordon's consistent bat over the year or it was Bubbs Merrill's perfect regular season fielding percentage, wherever NU was weak, someone else made it strong once more.
I don't know what you could say symbolized the regular season more appropriately, but I would look at two examples of what I think illustrates what this year's version of the Huskers is all about.
One: Bubbs Merrill. Here's a guy underrated from the outset by anyone that simply judged him by looking at him. If there is a better example of the old saying, "you can't judge a book by it's cover", he's it. To me, he embodies what the NU team as a whole represented going into this year. Someone that was considered (by media, fans and some would-be experts) to be gritty, tough and blue collar to the bone, but would be classified as an overachiever before he ever got credit for being gifted or having better than average ability.
He was someone that drove fast, ran hard and though his bat wasn't as prolific as hoped, his glove was silky smooth and perfect on the year. With little to no expectations, he contributed as someone that might be considered a role player, but as previously stated, his role was as significant as most any other. He was just one, but might as well have been the entire team, because what he was and what he represented was a reflection of the entire team.
Two: The comeback - Maybe it didn't happen with that much frequency, but when it did, NU did it in style. Every team comes back now and again, but NU certainly did have a flair about it this year. I say the comeback is an illustration because I believe that it represents one simple thing not about the ability of a team, but the mentality, to never say die, swing until they can't swing anymore and no matter what inning it is, what the score reads on the board, it just isn't over until it's over. All the way to this last game against Baylor has NU made their mind-set quite clear to anyone that plays them. Bring your "A" game and bring it for a full nine-innings.
I know there are some of you that said before this season began that your belief in what NU was capable this year, well, you weren't planning on any trips to Omaha, at least not to see the Big Red in the post-season. Those same will now say that they knew this was coming all along.
Ok, I can live with that.
Denial is easy to suppress and nobody likes to admit that they doubted a team after a team has gone and done something amazing. What I don't want is people to think that what this team has done is really that amazing after all.
No, I don't and won't discount the effort it takes to win the regular season crown in what has been the best baseball conference in the country this year. And, I would never discredit the kind of leadership it takes to keep a team at the top or close to for an entire season with the usual ups, downs and trials and tribulations within.
I just don't want anyone to get the idea that this team has done something they couldn't do or shouldn't have done considering the principles lost, because and I said it before, this team won as much as they did, they way they did mostly on what's inside each player, rather than what everyone sees on the screen.
Ability is one thing, capability is another and the latter defines the combination of what your body will allow you to do and what your mind tells you are your limits.
This year's team has had none thus far in most of what they have done and accomplished, but it's not a miracle, it's not this huge story to be lauded for years, because Anderson has proven that he's not the new face of Nebraska baseball, but simply a different person singing the same tune. Consistency, effort and never giving up. Fundamentals, the "B-hack" and never giving me an "excuse me" swing on an 0-0 count.
Doing the exact same thing they have done since this new era of NU baseball began, NU is right back where they were and yes, where they belong. They aren't in the CWS yet and everyone knows that at this point, it's still a very long ways to Omaha, but this baseball team has proven that where it counts, when it counts, there's no reason to think that they can't do it again.
So, I understand the idea that a new era doesn't necessarily mean new expectations or lowered ones that at. And, I agree that on paper, this team was potentially as good as NU has had in years, maybe ever. Fans could have been right all along in that a new regime didn't necessarily mean a new attitude as well.
If that's the case and NU does make it to the CWS for the third year in a row, perhaps the headlines won't read, indicating this was a feat that wasn't supposed to happen, but rather something everyone was just waiting for in the end.
Perhaps the new headline will be, "Well, what did you expect?"
Steve Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-730-5619