New Coach, Approach, and Conference

If anyone thinks the Nebraska baseball team won't make noise in their first year with the Big Ten conference, they haven't haven't been around new head coach Darin Erstad this offseason.

Since his hiring in June, Erstad has stated his team would "find a way" to get it done. Spend some time with the 14-year Major League Baseball veteran, and it's hard to not buy in to what he feels the Huskers can accomplish in 2012.

"They are tired of losing. They are tired of not going to conference tournaments or regionals," said Erstad. "They know what this program has done in the past and want to be part of it. You see it in their eyes, they are committed."

Erstad felt fall ball, a crucial time in the transition of the program, went very well. Not only did it give the first year head coach a chance to instill a new culture with the team, but it gave the players time to adjust to the approach they would be taking going forward.

"Everything we asked them to do, they did," said Erstad. "They put a lot of work in, they are incredibly hungry."

Kash Kalkowski
Erstad will inherit seven starters from Mike Anderson's last squad, with plenty of others having playing experience. His biggest names entering the season are outfielder Kash Kalkowski (Honorable-Mention All-Big 12 in 2011) and senior utility player Kale Kiser (Honorable-Mention All-Big 12 in 2010).

Kalkowski (Jr.) was the surprise of last season. A former pitcher, he underwent two shoulder surgeries and was moved to lineup as a positional player. It didn't take him long to get back into the swing of things at the plate. The sophomore batted .299 and drove in 42 runs. His play impressed pro scouts, as the Kansas City Royals selected Kalkowski in the 50th round, just three years after the Tampa Bay Rays used their 49th round pick then on the high school senior.

On the mound, Nebraska returns both Jon Keller (So.) and Tyler Niederklein (Jr.), who were No. 1 and No. 2 in total starts in 2011. The two had 27 starts and a combined ERA of 3.92. Both will be heavily relied upon to improve with the departure of Nebraska City native Logan Ehlers. The freshman made five starts down the stretch, and was the Huskers Friday night starter at the end of the year.

In addition, sophomores Tyler King and Zach Hirsch return to the bullpen. The two last year as freshman combined for 34 appearances, 38 innings, and an ERA of 2.13. The depth on the pitching staff has to be something that excites new pitching coach Ted Silva. The loss of four-year letterwinner Casey Hauptman to close out games will hurt, but it's the hope of the staff they find a reliable arm to throw in the 9th inning during non-conference play.

"I would love to sit here and talk about a preseason All-American we having coming back, but we have a bunch of guys have potential," said Erstad. "I don't believe they have played their best baseball.

"Nobody likes to get beat, these guys are competitors, they are a really close knit group that likes each other. It's going to be very important during the season at times of adversity."

In an interview with Big Red Report back in August, Erstad felt one of his biggest challenges would be preparing his team for failure. Dealing with adversity was something players struggled with at times last season. Erstad's approach to this will be telling his players to face it, not run from it.

"You don't try to forget about it. You never forget, but you have to learn to cope, make adjustments, and move on," said Erstad. "In baseball, there is so much failure, you better learn to just stare it in the face, accept it, learn from it, and move on.

"Everyone deals with this, it's not just you. One play doesn't make or break you in baseball. It's not going to define you as a player, what's going to define you is how you respond to it."

As Nebraska prepares for Big Ten play, the Huskers will have a lot of homework to do heading into conference play. Nebraska has only played one Big Ten (Iowa multiple times) in the last five years.

"We have done our preliminary work, but there is noting better than getting your eyes on a guy and seeing his swing," said Erstad who has already tabbed his favorites for the conference.

"I would put Purdue right at the top, they have a lot of guys coming back. I think they won 36 to 37 games last year. Michigan State and Illinois both tied for the regular season championship and have guys coming back. Minnesota is going to be decent. I don't have a crystal ball and don't know what's going to happen. But no disrespect to any the teams we play, but I don't who we are playing.

"I have always taken the approach; I don't care who we play. We need to execute at a high level regardless of whom we are playing. We don't need to be getting up for the No. 1 team in the country and then playing the No. 200 team at their level. It doesn't matter who the opponent is."

On most given nights, new conference opponents won't even be sniffing the Top 25. In the final 2011 Collegiate Baseball rankings, the Big Ten's highest rated team was No. 70 Purdue. In the final NCAA Baseball RPI, Michigan State was the highest rated squad in the conference at No. 82.

So what is the biggest difference from the Big 12 to the Big Ten that Erstad sees?

"Depth, bottom line depth," said Erstad. "You are going to see a very good starter on Friday and a couple good guys in the bullpen. You are going to see a couple good hitters in the middle of the lineup, but the way the signing stuff works compared to the other conferences, you just don't have the depth.

"One thing that I'm encouraged to see is we have depth. Over the long haul, I'm very comfortable going into a full conference schedule with the pitching we have."

But before conference begins, Nebraska most play 23 non-conference matchups, starting on February 17th – starting with a three-game series against Gonzaga in Peoria, Arizona.

"We are inherited the schedule, one team backed out and we added Cal (No. 8 in final 2011 USA Today Coaches Poll)," said Erstad. "We are going to be very aggressive in our non-conference schedule. You will see some changes in the future."

As the days get warmer here in Nebraska and Haymarket park begins to fill up, Erstad says Nebraska fans can expect at least one thing from his squad this year.

"I think we are going to outwork everybody. I think when you invest that much into it, it's hard to quit," said Erstad. "I think we have some talented baseball players here, I really do. We must remain consistent and play a high level of baseball for a long amount of time.

"If we do that, wins will come."

Josh Harvey has covered college football and recruiting for Fox Sports & since 2008. He is now the Publisher of Big Red Report, covering Nebraska athletics.
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