Take Me Out to the Ballgame is a multi-part series looking back at Nebraska baseball’s rise to College World Series contenders. | Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
To quote Casey Stengel, or James Thurber, take your pick: “You could look it up.”
I’ve used that line before. At the risk of redundancy, however, it seems appropriate to the Nebraska baseball team’s 2001 season—Dave Van Horn’s fourth as head coach.
It was “magical,” according to the 2002 baseball media guide.
Nebraska was coming off the winningest season (51-17) in school history, with 15 letterwinners returning, including seven pitchers, all of which was reflected in a No. 4 preseason national ranking by Collegiate Baseball, No. 5 by Baseball America.
The Huskers opened 2-3, then won 13 in a row, even though they would play only one of their first 21 games at home. The third week in April, the day after a nine-game winning streak was snapped in the last of a three-game series at Kansas, Baseball America ranked them No. 1.
Collegiate Baseball ranked them No. 4.
“It has been an uphill climb,” Van Horn said.
Either way, “it has happened faster than we expected,” he said. When he was hired, Athletic Director Bill Byrne had said it would be more of a marathon than a sprint.
Nebraska dropped three of its next four, but then swept Oklahoma State, scoring 39 runs in three games, to return to No. 1 in the Baseball America rankings the first week in May.
The No. 1 ranking was a signpost, but not the final goal, as was winning Nebraska’s first regular-season conference championship since 1950. The Huskers wrapped up the title with a 16-8 victory in the first of a three-game, regular-season-ending series at Iowa State.
Matt Hopper hit a grand slam and drove in six runs. John Cole went 3-for-5 with three runs scored and three RBIs. Steve Hale earned the victory, with Thom Ott coming on for the save.
The post-game celebration was modest, some ice water dumped on Van Horn.
Junior infielder Will Bolt said it was “just the first step.”
Nebraska lost the last two games of the series to finish the regular season 41-14.
In mid-April, after sweeping Baylor and taking two-of-three from Texas, Ott had been quoted that the Huskers’ home, Buck Beltzer Field, wasn’t the “best facility in the country.”
As a result, playing host to an NCAA regional would require “something extra,” he said.
The NCAA Division I Baseball Committee, headed by Texas A&M Athletic Director Wally Goff, thought Nebraska had met that requirement, including Buck Beltzer among 16 regional sites.
East Carolina, Georgia and Tulane were also among the 16 for the first time.
The Huskers still had the Big 12 Tournament, which it had won the previous two seasons, before the regional. They swept four games in Oklahoma City, defeating A&M for the title, 7-4.
Dan Johnson went 3-for-4, with two home runs and four runs-batted-in, and R.D. Spiehs, pitching on three days’ rest, went 6.1 innings, walking one and striking out 11.
Ott came on for his 10th save.
After conference tournaments concluded, the Division I Baseball Committee announced its top-eight seeds. There was a “pretty big gap” between the first and second eight, Goff was quoted.
Nebraska was the eighth seed, which meant the possibility of a super-regional if it could win.
Buck Beltzer, which had an AstroTurf infield and natural grass outfield, would be replaced in 2002. So this post-season was its last hurrah. Extra bleachers were being added to accommodate interest.
The three-game sweep of Baylor had drawn a record 9,042 to “The Buck.”
The regional, which included Northern Iowa, Rutgers and BYU, would attract more. “Magical” in 2001 was yet to be completely defined as the Huskers prepared to play Northern Iowa—which they had played in Lincoln two weeks before.
Bolt was 3-for-5, with a double, triple and five RBIs in a 15-6 victory.
In any case, getting to a third-consecutive regional wasn’t the “final step,” either.
You could look it up.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.