This story originally appeared in Vol. 6 Iss. 9 of Hail Varsity. Subscribe today.
On Thursday, Feb. 1, ahead of Friday's Fan Fest, Zac Luckey learned that he had officially made the Nebraska baseball team as a walk-on.
In the summer of 2016, 18-year-old Zac Luckey led the Five Points Bank (Omaha Creighton Prep) baseball team to the American Legion World Series. The shortstop was tearing it up, earning Central Plains Regional MVP and the Big Stick Award and making the all-tournament team at the World Series in Shelby, North Carolina.
Five Points Bank went 1-2, but Luckey played well and his coaches had been in contact with the Nebraska staff. The Huskers had their eye on him.
“‘Holy crap, I’m going to get a shot,’” Luckey thought after Prep’s run came to an end.
However, the news Luckey got from Coach Darin Erstad was not what he was expecting. Luckey had played well, but Erstad’s hands were tied; there were too many players on the team already.
Thus, the dream died. Or so it seemed.
Luckey had received a bit of interest from Omaha late, but by that point he had already enrolled in classes at UNL and wasn’t interested in hearing from the Mavericks.
So Luckey went to class, and spent his freshman year as a regular college student. The first month “really sucked,” Luckey said. Eventually, he adjusted to life away from the diamond, however.
Then he got a text, and everything changed.
According to American Legion rules, players who turn 19 after Jan. 1 are eligible to play, even if they’re in college. These players are commonly known as “Legion babies.”
Five Points Bank coach Pat Mooney had three Legion babies on the 2016 squad that made it to the World Series. When it came time to plan for their 2017 season, three players qualified to return as Legion babies in 2017: Luckey, Lucas Ripa (Luckey’s roommate at Nebraska) and Dane Hansen (attending class at TCU). Eligibility wasn’t the only factor Mooney considered, however.
“Would they be able to fit in with the dynamics of the younger group coming up?” Mooney said. “That’s a big part of it. Zac and Lucas Ripa and Dane Hansen this year, none of them were playing college baseball, but they were good leaders and they were going to be good role models and teachers to the younger class.”
So Mooney reached out to all three of them in the fall of 2016.
Initially, Luckey was unsure, Ripa said no and Hansen would only play if both of the others signed up. Would playing baseball with a team of high school kids really be the best way to spend their summers?
Luckey “probably didn’t know how serious we were when we asked him to come back,” Mooney said. “Him and Lucas Ripa are roommates down there, and they said ‘We might be trying to get jobs. We might stay in Lincoln and do school.’ So I mentioned to them, if I could find you jobs would you consider coming back to Omaha and playing?’ They said ‘Sure, if you get us jobs, fine, we’ll come back and play.’ I made two phone calls and 10 minutes later I said ‘Hey, I got you a job for the summer.’ So they kind of got stuck.”
Eventually, Luckey committed and then convinced Ripa to do the same. Hansen followed suit.
Though Luckey was not on a team, he continued to hold out hope for a future in the sport he loved. He went to a personal trainer during the school year to help him get into baseball shape, but more importantly, he made some changes to his daily routine to improve his overall health.
He got up around 6 a.m. most days to read the Bible, then meditate for a bit, then do some yoga. He started taking cold showers at night, and spent some time researching self-improvement tactics.
“It was a lot of little disciplines that led to big successes,” Luckey said.
Physically refreshed and ready for the season, Luckey got a motivational boost as well. His father, Robert, was friends with the golf coach at Minnesota, and through him reached out to Minnesota’s baseball coach about Zac.
“They were like, ‘We’ll see what happens after the draft, we’ll see what guys we’re losing and whatnot and then we’ll kind of stay in touch,’” Zac said. “That kind of got me excited to go back and play because I’d have a chance to maybe play at Minnesota if things worked out.”
Soon after, he got a call from Omaha’s head baseball coach, Evan Porter.
“He was like ‘Hey man, are you playing at Lincoln?’” Luckey said. “I go, ‘No, I’m not.’ He goes ‘We’d love to talk to you and stay in touch over the spring and see what you’re up to and maybe have you come down for a visit and watch over the summer.’”
Suddenly, after half a year away from the game, there was a glimmer of hope for Luckey. He joined up with Five Points Bank and began the Legion season in mid-May.
“Starting off it was like, ‘Actually this is kind of cool, playing baseball again, this will be fun,’” Luckey said. “That was kind of my mindset for the first week or two, just kind of getting to know the guys, trying to get my swing back, getting into a rhythm and all that. I was pretty successful the first few weeks for not playing for almost a full year.”
Luckey was plugged into a starting role right away and was counted on as a team leader and top performer.
“Zac got to come back and play shortstop for us for most or almost all of our games, he usually hit towards the top of the lineup; he got to work with the middle infielders … He was a four-year starter, just kind of knew the ropes and taught the young kids to anticipate this pitch coming and here’s how you handle the big game and here’s the kind of play we need to make here,” Mooney said. “It was nice to have another coach on the field.”
Omaha offered Luckey a scholarship and brought him in for an official visit. Southeast Community College offered as well, but junior college was not for him. He never heard from Minnesota again.
Then Five Points Bank hit the road for travel tournaments, and the season started to drag. All of the other kids seemed to have something they were playing for, either trying to impress college coaches or enjoying their last ride. Luckey’s recruitment stagnated and he had already gone through the emotions of experiencing what he thought was his final year of baseball in 2016.
“I kind of had that realization mid-summer and it kind of brought me down little bit,” Luckey said. “I stopped trying as much as I used to; I was kind of lackadaisical half the time. I just wasn’t giving it my all that I should have been, and the guys kind of realized that a little bit.”
The season rolled on, and Omaha continued to up the ante with its scholarship offer, topping out at 75 percent.
“UNO was the only one left standing, and this was mid-summer,” Luckey said. “I had to make a decision because they kept amping up the scholarship, like ‘OK, if we’re going to offer you this much we need you to decide by this coming Sunday — it was Saturday at the time when I received that.”
The Mavericks had brought Luckey in for a game in April. Coincidentally, the game was against the Huskers at Werner Park.
“The whole time I was just staring over at Nebraska’s dugout, thinking to myself, ‘Dang, I feel like I need to be over there,’” Luckey said. “The UNO dugout just didn’t feel right. They have great coaches, they have great players, but it’s not where my heart was.”
Luckey went to lunch with his dad, a former Omaha football player, and his mom Maria, who just wanted to see him play baseball again, and broke the news to them: Omaha wasn’t the right place for him. Luckey said his parents were devastated, but his dad knew that his heart was in Lincoln — with or without baseball.
The state tournament rolled around, and suddenly Luckey rediscovered his fire. Prep had made it to regionals seven years in a row; Luckey didn’t want to be part of the team that broke the streak.
“The more energy I gave the more fun I had and the more successful we were,” Luckey said. “It just became a lot more fun to compete and do well.
Five Points Bank won the state tournament and advanced to the Central Plains Regional in Dickinson, North Dakota. “How sweet would it be if you were back-to-back regional MVP? How cool would it be if you went to the World Series again?” Luckey wondered.
He found out just how sweet it was as he repeated as regional MVP, the first time anyone had done that as far as his family can tell.
The Junior Jays were headed to Shelby, North Carolina, again.
“We don’t get to the World Series without those three college kids living up to their expectations because they all had big roles in the regional tournament and the state tournament, and it was just the cherry on top when we got to the World Series,” Mooney said.
“To go back-to-back MVPs is unheard of, and as we were driving home to get ready to go to North Carolina, Maria and I said we’ve got to do something,” Robert Luckey said.
The Luckeys took matters into their own hands. They got contact information for Erstad and recruiting coach Ted Silva and called them both, leaving voicemails. Maria sent an email as well including Zac’s stats and accomplishments.
The Luckeys weren’t expecting to get a response, but they had to try.
Their last-ditch effort paid off. The day before the team left for Shelby, Erstad gave Robert a call. They talked for 30 to 45 minutes, and at the end of the conversation, Erstad asked if Zac would have any interest in walking on.
However, Zac was on a mission and Robert didn’t want to distract him with the good news. He held his tongue, as difficult as it was for him.
Five Points Bank won its first four games — two of them split across two days because of rain delays — before falling in the championship game. Because of the weather, Prep was the only team to play on six straight days, including twice on the final day.
“We lost the championship, and that was heartbreaking, especially just the circumstances with that whole tournament,” Luckey said. “It was just weird how it all panned out. It was just really unfortunate. I was devastated and heart-broken that we ended up losing that game.”
His parents sensed his broken heart at the hotel after the game and couldn’t stay quiet any longer.
“I knew Zac left everything on the field as did every one of the players and he needed something to cheer him up,” Robert said. “So we were talking, and he was like, ‘I’m glad I came and played summer ball, but I guess I’m now done.’ And that’s when I said, ‘Nah, I don’t think you are.’ He was like ‘What?’ I was like ‘I don’t know if it’s my place to tell you. He was like, ‘No, what?’ I said ‘How would you like to have the potential to be a Husker? I wasn’t going to tell you but Coach Erstad and I talked and he’ll be giving you a call.’”
Luckey got a text from Erstad the next morning, and within an hour of Zac’s responding the paperwork began flooding in.
After everything he had been through, Luckey was finally a Husker.
“It’s just really neat that he stuck to his guns,” Robert said. “He’s thought out what he wants to accomplish and it’s not just about baseball … As an ex-athlete, you can’t be anything but proud that he’s seizing the opportunity and he’s seizing the moment to take advantage of all that is available to him.”
Luckey was not promised anything other than the opportunity to earn his place on the team during fall practice, but that was also the case for a walk-on out of Omaha Skutt, MoJo Hagge, last year. Hagge not only earned his spot on the team, he cracked the lineup and was a key Husker last season.
Luckey played with Hagge in seventh and eighth grade and was not shy about reaching out for some advice heading into the fall.
“He’s definitely been a big help, and I just know we’re going to build a good bond and friendship like we did years ago playing with each other,” Luckey said.
Luckey hit .423 on a team-high 208 at-bats this season and led the team in runs (64) and hits (88). Mooney said he believes Luckey has the athleticism and skill to fill whatever role the Huskers may have for him.
“He’s an excellent in-fielder,” Mooney said. “He’s got a quick arm so he can play third, short or second. He runs really well. He’s very smart, anticipation-wise of where guys are going to hit the ball. He knows where to throw the ball. He knows the game real well. If they need help in the outfield, he can go run down a fly ball. Hopefully he doesn’t get pigeon-holed just to play infield only. If they’re searching for an outfielder, he might have been our best outfielder if we had stuck him out there.”
After more than a year, Zac Luckey is finally getting the chance he thought he earned after his senior year of high school. He likely won’t know for sure whether or not he made the team until January, but for now, he’s a Husker.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.