In our new segment on HC, we will be profiling the Nebraska Baseball team. A team that has more than proven the worth of attention despite the existence of a familiar "powerhouse" relative. From their first College World Series berth to now, Husker Baseball is catching on everywhere and HC is just another place where the fever is setting in. Along side baseball fanatic, Scott "huskerkid" Kuhn, we'll take a look at the team, analyze the games each week and Scott will pick his HC players of the week.
This week, we talk to Will Bolt. Out of Conroe, Texas, Will has made a name for himself as a player, a leader and an opportunist. If it wasn't breaking the all-time record for consecutive hits by a freshman, it's been his consistency on both sides of the pads. Offensive and Defensive, Bolt has become a staple of the Van Horn philosophy proving that "small ball" can beat anyone if you have the right players with the right attitude. Will Bolt certainly qualifies as one of those.
This year, Bolt will play his final year as a Nebraska Cornhusker. It will be a chance for him to improve on what has been an already impressive career. You need only think back to what seems like yesterday to recall his catch that put NU over Rice and on to their first-ever College World Series appearance. Add to the luster of great-timing, Bolt has the chance to break a few records this year, not the least of which is Darin Erstad's career hit total of 261. Bolt stood 57 behind that total at the beginning of this season. "I'm not off to a very good start so far", Bolt said in reference to NU's 3-3 start of the season, "but there's a couple of records that should probably fall this year".
As you would expect of someone that is so focused on a team effort, Will didn't linger too long on the personal aspect as the conversation leaned more to what happened last year and what was to come.
Last year, first year, College World Series. Grandiose in it's achievement, surreal in the experience, we can only marvel in speculation as to what these young men actually felt. Did it hit them immediately or did they not even realize that what was happening.....was indeed really happening, until after it was all said and done? "I think it was definitely afterwards when it hit everyone, Bolt said. "When we were there, it was almost a little overwhelming. We knew it was going to be incredible and we were like looking at each other saying "wow", this is better than I ever thought it could be."
What do think of Haymarket Park?
"It's incredible. At the Buck, you didn't really have to battle the wind about the stadium, because there wasn't one, but as far as the playing surface, it's real good. We probably have one of the best groundskeepers in the country."
"Anytime you are going to have 6,000 screaming Big Red fans in one spot, there's going to be a home-field advantage."
Coming off of that experience or any that you could relate in some way, people that have been in that position have said that the hunger to get back is worse than the initial hunger to get there, because now you know what it's like. Will confirmed such a belief as he says that the hunger has indeed grown as has the anticipation for this season that is barely underway. "As bad as I wanted to get to Omaha, I think it's even more this year. I didn't think I got to soak it all in (last year) and I feel that with that experience last year and with the guys we have on our team, we can take that step and get there and try to win it all."
To win it all. The ultimate in team success. That banner of glory, that title that goes only to you and those moments that you reminisce upon as those most cherished because they ended in victory. Nebraska had a glimpse of it last year and looks to it more determined this season, but comes in losing a good deal of what got them there previously. With the losses of R.D. Spiehs, Thom Ott, Dan Johnson and Johnn Cole just to name a few, replacing them is a daunting task, but one that Bolt says is possible. "You can't really replace like Cole, Johnson and Stern and we know we lost guys like R.D. Spiehs and those guys", Bolt stated. "We knew that we were going to be a little inexperienced at certain positions, so we knew we had some holes to fill here and there. We knew we weren't going to be able to replace Cole and Stern's speed. They were unbelievable on the bases and scoring runs, so those guys are hard to replace, but we feel like we have some guys that can get the job done pretty good."
The country agreed with Bolt's assessment as Nebraska came into the season ranked in the top ten nationally and was picked (again) as one of the Big XII elite. The run of success that NU has had in the last four years under coach Van Horn has certainly drawn attention near and far, but most importantly, near. With the rising success of the baseball team, the fans have caught on and this "one-horse" town has become decidedly diverse in it's fanaticism and now, Spring is no longer a "down-time". Will commented on the resurgence of Nebraska Baseball and the effect it has had on fans and vice versa. "It's been great", Bolt stated in reference to the fan support. "It's gotten better and better. Nebraska is a great baseball state and I am sure that the years they (Nebraska baseball) were down, I am sure it was rough on Nebraskans, because I know they love baseball."
Nebraskans love baseball? Yes they do and the miniature "sea of red" at the new Haymarket Park is a testament to that fact. What also illustrates this new-found loyalty in some is a reiterating of an aforementioned point, that being that Husker Football isn't the only game in town. Bolt said that fans are constantly reminding him of just that fact. "After games, people say we play so hard and that it is fun to watch and they appreciate our effort and everything else and it's nice to hear that. I mean, Nebraska is a football state, but we can make it sort of a baseball state to and I think we've done that."
As the fire grows ever stronger in the cauldron that is Nebraska Baseball, people need only to look back at their leader, Coach Van Horn to find the reason for this re-birth. Prior to his arrival at Nebraska, it was more than a decade since NU had seen a regional and now, Nebraska has only won the stout Big XII three straight times and of course, made it's first-ever appearance just 60 miles away. With coaches like this, there are always obvious attributes, but some that aren't quite so noticeable except to those that play under him day-to-day. "He (Van Horn) is a guy that expects a lot, Bolt said, but I think I along with my teammates expect a lot out of ourselves. He instills in all of us that we are going go be good even in times that aren't going so well. He's a great coach."
As Van Horn has gone, so has the Nebraska baseball team and it's been nowhere but up. Each year, Nebraska has improved, thus yielding the extra ordinary expectations this season. What has brought this about can be speculated by all as to whether it is intensity, talent, resolve, his philosophy on the game or a compilation of all the above stated criteria. Most point first and foremost to Van Horn's almost patented "small ball" philosophy that actually goes against the popular belief that you can power your way to wins, rather than having to rely solely on the fundamentals. Will believes that Van Horn's philosophy is a system that derives it's success from both.
"The thing is, a lot of teams can play small ball, but can't hit the long ball and a lot of teams can hit the long ball, but can't play small ball, Bolt stated. I think the thing that has made us successful is that we can lay down a bunt, steal a bag, drive a runner over from second base, but we can also hit that big three-run homer when we need it to."
Small Ball certainly has made it's presence known under Van Horn and one can hardly argue with the success it has brung. We might however argue if just a bit that though this philosophy certainly gets you there, the CWS seems to show year after year that it's the power teams that end up with the hardware. Bolt didn't find that a completely accurate assessment. "I mean, those other teams are going to score a lot of runs, but you have to have the other things, Will said. "You think of the LSUs and they have had some pretty darn good pitchers go through there and you like to think that home runs are going to score and get you the wins, but we do a lot of other things and I think that sets us apart."
Setting themselves apart has attributed greatly to Nebraska's success as they have widened their gap between them and the rest of the field in the Big XII continually as Van Horn's tenure has evolved. This year (as last year), pitching is considered to be the strength of the team, one because of the experience coming back and two, because of the lack of experience returning at other key areas. Again, NU's pitching staff is considered to be one of the very best in college baseball. That doesn't seem like much of an honor for Husker hitters when you have to practice day-to-day against such players as Shane Komine who's double-digit strikeout performances have almost become an afterthought. "He's (Komine) tough to hit", Bolt stated. "I have been facing him for 3 and a half years now and he's definitely tough to hit."
With the pitching staff perceived to be leading the way, Nebraska has started this year off a little slower than expected. Expectations that seemed to differ from Nebraska's "trend", based on similar starts from previous clubs the prior two years. Based on NU's mid to late-season surges that have become a mainstay of the team however, this might even be considered business as usual.
Playing games against teams like Rice and Baylor early in the season isn't just hard, it's damn tough. Not just due to the fact hat they are good teams, but one other very noticeable factor that comes into early-season play.They have the opportunity to play in warm weather, it gives them the chance to practice more, thus making their readiness far more apparent and by the time NU gets to face these particular foes, it's usually Nebraska first or second game, while those aforementioned teams could be as far as double-digits in their season experience for the year. Bolt stated, it has to have an impact. "That's the only explanation I can think of', Bolt stated. "I think this is the third year in a row that we gone 3-3 to start the year. It's usually 1-2 and then 2-1 and then in the last week, we go 3-0. We are happy when we get to get outside 7 or 8 times before the season and those guys (the southern teams) get out every single day. As much as we want to say that it shouldn't effect us, it really does I think."
To some, that might come as an easy excuse for losing a few here and there. To others, it might seem to be pointing the blame other than where it should be. Given that, especially with the strength of NU's early schedule, Bolt's argument would appear to have legitimate merit. "It's easy to look at that and say that's why we don't play well at the beginning of the year", Bolt argued, "but in all actuality, that is a big reason, because you can't really simulate getting ground balls outside or getting live at-bats outside."
Given that slight handicap in the previous two seasons, it has still obviously not effected Nebraska to a great degree. The Polls and analysts that prior to Van Horn's arrival shunned NU's legitimacy now embrace NU accepting the fact that Nebraska Baseball is amongst the country's best.
But what about those powerhouses out there in the baseball world? What does it take for a team like Nebraska to beat these teams when it matters the most and propel them yet farther into post-season play? "A lot of it has to do with experience", Will said. "You look at those teams, they go to regionals every year for years. We're talking 20 years or 30 years running. They get that experience in the post-season and you can't beat that post-season experience. Obviously they have good hitting and pitching, but post-season experience means a lot."
With NU's recent performances, post-season appearanc
Favorite Baseball Player:
"Craig Biggio is my favorite player. He's the type of player I like to mold myself after. He's a hard-nose guy. He's not afraid to break up a double-play or make a diving stop or just do the little things.
"Hey may not be the best player in the game, but he's a guy that makes a team better doing the little things."
The Big XII will be tough, but few doubted that from the outset. Making it through this conference subsequently winning in three consecutive years says enough for NU right there, but measures to no great extent what it takes to get there. Bolt stated that though the season is long and the schedule is always tough, it's more about being mentally prepared as playing upwards of 70 games can sometimes leave a player lax in their focus at times. "It is a little bit tough at times especially at the beginning of the year where we travel so much", Will said. "It's a deal where coach Van Horn makes sure that we are ready to play every day. He's just on top of it, all of our coaches are. They make sure that every day in practice, that we are ready to practice like we are going to play in games. They expect us to do our best all the time and for those guys, you don't want to do anything but give your best."
Nebraska went into this season heralded to a degree based on their potential. Having almost half of the roster never having had Division 1-A experience, the task of finding that rhythm early in the season is daunting. Though NU fields a quality group of in-coming freshmen and Junior College transfers, Nebraska (as usual) must find their game on the road and against some of the best competition in the country. Over half of their first 13 opponents were all ranked at the opening of the season. But as they say, it's not where you start, but where you finish that matters.
The Nebraska football team (over time) has been able to induce a confidence in it's avid followers. From one post-season appearance after another, Husker faithful no longer anticipate success, they expect it. An almost nonchalant attitude towards getting to a bowl game is evident as it's all so very common anymore. That kind of attitude is hard to instill on a fan-base, but one that is obviously possible. This Nebraska baseball team has had an impressive run, but Van Horn and his team of Huskers don't seem all that intent on stopping anytime soon.
For Bolt and his teammates, this is yet another year, another chance at moving yet a little farther up the ladder. For them, it's a chance to get that taste out of their mouth of a CWS appearance and put a new one in that lies a little farther beyond. Early season disappointment aside, this baseball team still has the fans in a frenzy, because they are anticipating what is yet to come. Maybe soon, the fans will expect it, because though a fan-base may need convincing of a team's worth over the long haul, you don't need to drill their worthiness into the minds of those on the team. They know how good they are and they know what they can do. This season is just another opportunity to show everyone that there's more than one horse in this here town.