The story about the effect Dave Van Horn's departure has been well-documented and speculated upon enough, so we won't bother with that. I'm not interested in how it actually is, but how it feels. What does bringing a better record home than Van Horn brought back to Lincoln in either of the years NU went to the College World Series feel like? "I think they feel the same." Associate head coach and pitching coach, Rob Childress stated. "Everyone has a job to do, takes care of their job and there's not any egos going on."
"Everyone is committed to the bottom line and that's winning games."
That actually seems to be the most common link between Van Horn teams from before and this year's team of Huskers. The absence of overriding personalities, despite the slew of talent that exists, continuity builds from that and it's nowhere more evident than can be found with the pitching staff.
Last year, noone would have argued if Shane Komine stood above the rest. He was clearly the best pitcher NU had, one of the best in the country and for most of the year, you looked at Friday as a win, as did the opponents in some cases, opting to put their best on the mound the following day, not wanting to "waste" him in a losing effort.
Even with that though, neither Shane's ego or anyone else's surfaced as something more than the team and therein lies much of the similarities between this staff, much conditioned from Shane's presence and absence as well. "It's just like football and losing Eric Crouch." Childress stated. "You move on. We haven't even thought about Shane unless the media brings it up."
"We appreciate everything Shane did for us and he's probably the biggest reason for the success we have experienced the last four years, but in college athletics, you only get four years to play and he made the most of it."
Whether Shane's absence last year due to injury was a significant help or not in Aaron Marsden and Brian Duensing seeing the time they did on the mound, it certainly didn't hurt. So without even meaning to, Komine did possibly as much for NU without being there as he did, throwing one gem of a game after another. His loss was NU's future gain.
"Aaron Marsden knows he is going on Friday nights, Duensing knows he is going on Saturdays and guys are starting to feel their roles." Childress stated. "And, as we get to playing more mid-week games, I think you will start to see roles really come together for other guys."
Based on the early results, some are already feeling their role on the team. NU brings back a 7-2 record back to Haymarket park, but two out of those last three wins, that's what has everyone smiling, coaches included. Victories over top 10, Wake Forest and Top 15, Notre Dame, the early-season woes due to geography seem to be sliding into the back of minds, rather than on the tip of tongues, waiting for that usual rebuttal.
In those two wins, Aaron Marsden had a career-high number of strikeouts against Notre Dame and Duensing duplicated that effort, notching his own career best in K's against the Demon Deacons. Following all that up was fairly fresh face to the starting line-up, Quinton Robertson as he got his second victory of the year, going 6 innings, allowing only one earned run and striking out 3.
You combine all this with solid hitting and good defense, you have hit upon the three most basic fundamentals of the game, four games in a row. Typical early-season chagrin has simply brought A grin, yet, believe it or not, some questions that haunted NU from last year have yet to be answered thus far.
There were two things with the pitching staff that never really got finalized last season and you don't have to look much farther than that for a good portion of NU's close losses. That being NU coaches never being able to find that valued 3rd starter in the pitching rotation and a replacement for stud-closer, Thomas Ott from the year before.
It's a situation that Childress said is an obvious one to address, but qualified the rest of his capable staff by reminding everyone that there are more than three good guys on this team. "I think it makes everyone associated with this program a little more at ease when you know you have three guys that are going to give us quality starts and someone that can finish games."
"I feel good about how the staff lines out, but it's going to change throughout the course of the season."
"We still have two guys that are very good pitchers that have yet to throw for us in Zach Kroeneke and John Brownell. They are going to pitch, so to me, it's an ever-changing thing."
The bright side to this ever-changing pitching rotation is depth and the development of such. As any season develops, whether it's starters, middle-relief or closers, you have to find not one guy, but any number of them to fill holes when needed.
The loss of Komine last year proved how much you must depend on those not seemingly in the spotlight, because you never know when either the team or the situation demands that one of them finds that center of attention, if but for a game or two. "Guys are going to get hot and some are going to get in slumps." Childress stated. "But, I have said this before and right now, I feel as good as I ever have about our pitching staff."
Pointing back to this season thus far, you would have to feel good as the coach. Again, Nebraska has been solid for the most part in just about every phase of the game. What really opens your eyes though are those two aforementioned wins over some seriously outstanding teams in Wake Forest and Notre Dame. Not once in the last 5 years has NU came back to their first home game with this few of losses, nor two wins over opponents ranked this high. As a team, confidence has to be riding high. "I think it gives a team a strong sense of confidence." Childress stated. "To go up there and do that against those teams, there's no doubt that it will give them confidence."
"To me (though), I told them on Tuesday, you can feel good about this past weekend on Monday, but it's over. We have a new challenge ahead."
That challenge is the three-game home stand against Wisconsin-Milwaukee, starting with a double-header today. On paper, the winless UW-Milwaukee team doesn't seem to stack up, especially after NU so easily dispatched the Irish and Demon Deacons. As the old cliche' goes however, while fans are looking already to Omaha, coaches and players find their goals a little more in touch with where they are at and aspirations that ultimately find themselves in Omaha, but despite those huge wins, confidence hardly places a firm grasp of the arduous journey ahead.
"Our goals are the same as they have always been and that's to win the Big XII and win 40 games." Childress stated. "That's the key and when you look at the last two years in the super regionals, we got to play at home. You want to host a regional and get a top-eight seed, so you can host in the second round."
"But, people don't seem to realize, that it's hard to get to Omaha."
An interesting statement, don't you think, especially considering the team? How many years ago was it when nobody paid attention to the baseball team? How many years ago was it when if someone asked you who the coaches were, any of the starters and so on, you were stumped, wishing only for a media guide, so as to feel some comfort in this belief that you weren't a one-sport fan?
Now, people are expecting to get back to the College World Series as if this were the football team and the CWS was simply another bowl.
Not quite that simplistic in even the most optimistic fan's belief, but it paints a fairly accurate picture of the massive turnaround in what fans hope for nowadays as opposed to not many years ago.
It's early though, real early. Despite this "sudden" success as would be indicated by the calendar more than the wins, NU still has almost an entire season to go. With what is considered by some to be the most talented team in years though, optimism will reign high and yes, the coaches are not immune.
While restrained in that logical sense of what's in front of them, not even Childress can deny what this team is, what it's potential could be and where it has a chance to go. But of course, as any good coach does, he finalizes his statement in a typical style.
"I like this team, I really do." Childress stated. "And, you have to talk about getting to Omaha if you want to get there. But, it's about staying consistent, staying healthy, getting hot at the right time and our bench mark are those 40 wins, so we can host a regional."
"You have to be lucky and get a lot of breaks, because again, it's hard to get to Omaha, but it helps when you are playing in front of 10,000 fans in red."
That's a lot of red, probably nothing NU players and coaches will sniff even a marginal percentage of today in their Friday double-dip. But, it's at home. Oh, home sweet home and every year when it seems like the first game at home is almost half-way through the season, local fans finally get their chance to see the "new" team in action.
It's a new team, with "old" goals and some veterans at the helm. When you heard about Dave Van Horn leaving, at that time, you might have asked yourself how bad change would be. Now, you might be wondering just how good this change will get.
And, it only took 9 games to get there.
Imagine what the rest of the year has in store.
Steve Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-730-5619