Last year's CWS appearance, which marked the second time NU has ever been there, but the second time consecutively, well, there's a bitter taste in some players' mouth. Yeah, that's right. Bitter. A team that has known so little success on the diamond has came so far in such a short amount of time that just getting to the CWS isn't enough. Now, it's about doing more. John Grose has carried that attitude since this last season ended, telling me, "I would be upset if we "just" got to the CWS."
Personally, when I knew that Dave Van Horn was leaving, I wasn't sure how the players would act. Yeah, the coaches that are now at the head positions have been there awhile, but you can't discount with Van Horn did in such a short time. Under his wing, the NU team simply got better, every single year, except this last year as NU repeated it's previous performance of first round bow outs at the CWS. But, they made it to the CWS, something no NU baseball team has ever done.
I didn't know what to think.
The players didn't agree though and for coach Anderson, the attitude may have never left, but the return of one particular player just cemented the confidence that everyone had in making their way back to Omaha. When Jeff Leise said he was coming back, things were only looking brighter. "When Jeff made that decision this Summer, I knew what kind of impact that was going to have the second he made it." coach Anderson stated. "I knew that he would be a great role model for this team."
Jeff is just part of what made this team what it was last season and NU will be looking to many of the same guys and some newer faces to bring similar success to NU and of course, more.
When you look at last season, it was one of streaks or trends. Not necessarily in wins or losses, but in regards to performances at the plate and on the mound. Early on, it was the pitching staff carrying the load, while hitting and defense struggled to keep up. Throughout the early to mid-points, the bats picked up along with pitching staying fairly consistent, but the team still was never completely on track. And then, as the season waned into the latter parts, the bats lit up, the defense was getting considerably better, but all of a sudden, the pitching staff went into a collective swoon. That trend continued on through the post-season, except for brief glimpses in the regionals and super regionals. During the CWS, it was the bats that were going crazy and the pitching staff that was driving everyone crazy, because from top to bottom, it just didn't happen.
That leads to this season and as much as anyone or everyone would like to make about the coaching changes, I have found through conversations with players that Van Horn might have left, but what he didn't take with him was the attitude to win, but more importantly, the faith the players had in the coaches that were already here. "Coach Van Horn was great and all, but people don't understand how much coach A and coach Childress meant to our success last year." Grose stated in an interview during the off-season last year. "Because they were our position coaches, we got to know them and I think that's big for this year, because everyone respects them, but they also like them to."
"You'll run through a wall for those guys."
While that analogy may be reserved at times for football, if not literally, figuratively it describes an almost unanimous belief that this team has some unfinished business. Yeah, I know that's about as cliche' as you can get, especially at Nebraska, but after where NU has been, an attitude as if they have done nothing is as much a comfort as it might be a surprise. "That's our ultimate goal." Aaron Marsden said of NU winning a national title. "In Omaha, we came up short and I hated that ride back. It was just frustrating."
Frustration, at least when it comes to Nebraska baseball can be measured in eras more than it can seasons. The frustration a baller for NU feels nowadays is markedly different from the days when it was good, but never quite good enough. Now, the success has become contagious from year to year and the expectations are starting to resemble that of a program not too far from Haymarket Park.
One of the biggest things NU has to overcome year after year is that early season. All those games spent on the road, having neither the weather nor the opportunity to get outside in "live" practices. As NU heads south, they will be facing once again, one team after another that has been outside virtually the entire time they have been relegated to schulte field house and each year, the effect is noteworthy. Coach Anderson said there is no quick fix, but had a humorous take on what NU can do to get off to a little better beginning. "[we] need to stop going to the Rice tournaments." Anderson said jokingly. "We have gone to that a number of times, coming back 1-2 and the coaches are scratching their heads, thinking we were prepared."
"It's tough, but at the same time, we try to understand that what we are preparing for is not the first three games or first six games, we are trying to prepare for the full season. If we don't come out strong, we still have the capability of getting better."
What Nebraska does have going in it's favor this early season will be a slightly easier schedule. Whether by orchestration or chance, Nebraska will find itself with a clear opportunity to get out of that typical early-season funk, possibly propelling themselves into mid-season form a little sooner. Coach Anderson said that this game couldn't come soon enough though as the field house may be accommodating, but at this point, NU needs someone else to play. "We have had a few situations, where a few tags hard here and there, a few fastballs a little bit harder in than they should be, our guys are getting a little tired of playing each other." coach Anderson stated. "They want to play somebody else."
That somebody else will start with the senior-laden SouthWest Texas team, their first round opponent in the "Round Rock Express Classic". NU's first full-series will be against Louisiana Tech while their first home-stand will be against Wisconsin-Milwaukee almost a full month away, March 7th thru the 9th.
I can tell you personally that if you were looking for chins to drop, confidence to shake and players to feel a little bit of trepidation over the first year post-Van Horn, you need to stop looking. Confidence hasn't waned, it's grown. The pitching staff post-Komine hasn't suffered, they've gotten better. The batting line-ups look even more formidable this year, because there should be a consistent contribution across the board, instead of isolated amongst a few.
While the fans have tried to subdue their expectations of what will happen this season, the players and coaches have already decided that last year simply wasn't good enough. New staff or not, new faces or not, there's only one place these players want to go and it's the year-long journey to take a short 60 mile drive and get farther than the two years before.
As catcher John Grose stated colorfully, if anything but that happens, "I will be pissed."
Steve Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-730-5619