Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Conference Play a ‘Clean Slate’ for Huskers

March 24, 2023

Next up, Nebraska’s Big Ten-opening, weekend series against Illinois at Haymarket Park.

And yes, growing up in Des Plaines, Illinois, the Fighting Illini were Husker pitcher Emmett Olson’s favorite Big Ten team. Sort of.

Runner-up favorite, actually, behind Northwestern.

The University of Illinois is “about three hours south of me,” said Olson.

Des Plaines is a Chicago suburb, and Olson “stayed in the Chicago area” choosing a favorite.

His connection, or not, to the Fighting Illini is an expected way for reporters to begin a discussion, given the junior left-hander will get Friday night’s 6:05 start. “I kind of have something against them, but not really,” Olson said. “It’d just be cool to shut down the old home team.”

The truth is it would be cool to shut down any team in the Big Ten opener. Or any non-Big Ten team, for that matter, though beginning conference play is like starting with a “clean slate,” Coach Will Bolt said.

Nebraska is 11-7-1, coming off a “crushing loss” at Creighton Tuesday night. Illinois is 10-7. But the Big Ten record is “0-0, so you start out that way . . . all the games are obviously a factor in terms of post-season play, but the Big Ten champion is going to play in the postseason,” he said.

“So you’ve got an opportunity to control your own destiny when it comes to that stuff.”

Olson is 3-1 with a 3.34 earned run average. Jace Kaminska, the starter for Saturday’s 2:02 p.m. game, is 4-0 with a 1.86 ERA. The junior right-hander hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last 18.2 innings. The Husker starter for Sunday’s 1:05 p.m. game is to be determined.

Even though opening Big Ten play can be seen as a fresh start, “you don’t put any more on it,” said Bolt. “I think just knowing a little bit more about the teams you play, just because you’ve played them each year or you’re familiar with the style of play that certain coaches have, that kind of stuff. But I don’t think our players really think of it in any other way, just go out there and just go compete.”

What Bolt and staff know about Illinois is different than a year ago, when the Illini won two-of-three in Champaign. “They’ve hit for more power this year,” Bolt said. “Usually they’ve been a high-average, don’t strike-out, not as many home runs. They’ve hit for more power this year and they’ve got power arms this year, so I think maybe their front-line guys are better than (in the past).”

Illinois is batting .269 as a team, with 27 home runs; the Illini have struck out 184 times. Their pitching staff has a 5.47 ERA, with 157 strikeouts and 75 walks in 151.1 innings. By comparison, Nebraska is hitting .329 with 30 home runs and 175 strikeouts. Husker pitchers have an earned-run-average of 5.04, with 142 strikeouts and 65 walks in 159 innings.

So Big Ten play, like a new season?

“I guess you could say that,” said Brice Matthews, who’s hitting .414 with six home runs, 29 runs-batted-in and nine steals in 12 attempts, all team highs. “We’re just taking it one day at a time, one game at a time, one practice at a time, having as much fun as we can.

“We just want to play baseball every day.”

Friday night Nebraska will retire the jerseys of Darin Erstad, Shane Komine and Alex Gordon in a ceremony before the first pitch. The jerseys are the first to be retired.

Max Anderson, who leads the Huskers hitting .449, with three home runs and 22 RBIs, is “super-excited” for Big Ten play. “It’s some of the most fun baseball ever,” he said.

Why? “I’d say it’s just the level of intensity. You get it from both sides of the teams,” said Anderson. “You can just tell. There’s just a level of wanting to win more, almost. But you’re playing for your school at that point, really, for the name on the front of your chest.

“It just feels like a bigger game, almost.”

Even so, “I think the teams that focus one game at a time are going to be the ones that succeed in Big Ten play because everybody’s going to give you their best shot, every single weekend,” Anderson said.

  • Never miss the latest news from Hail Varsity!

    Join our free email list by signing up below.