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, 7, 8, 9, 10
Speculation had it that pitching coach Rob Childress would succeed Dave Van Horn as head coach at Nebraska. He had come with Van Horn from Northwestern (La.) State.
Speculation also had it that Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Byrne wanted to keep both Childress and Mike Anderson, who had been a holdover from John Sanders’ staff.
“We knew Bill wanted to keep us together, and we knew we wanted to be together,” Anderson said during the news conference to introduce him as Husker head coach in late June of 2002.
He had wanted to “keep the momentum,” said Byrne, who would be gone to Texas A&M before Anderson’s first season, replaced by Steve Pederson.
Byrne had only interviewed Anderson and Childress after determining that regardless of whom he picked, the other would stay. Childress became associate head coach, with an annual salary of $80,000. Anderson received a four-year contract with a base salary of just over $100,000 annually.
Anderson said his goal was to win a national championship. With Van Horn gone, he said, he hoped teams in the Big 12 would be “looking at us as underdogs.”
If conference opponents were, they were mistaken. Anderson’s first team won the Big 12 regular-season championship and then their first two games in the conference tournament at Oklahoma City, the second against Baylor before dropping two to the Bears, the first in 14 innings.
Even so, for the third year in a row, Nebraska played host to an NCAA regional. But it was eliminated in the fifth game by Southwest Missouri State, 7-0, managing only five hits.
No surprise, Anderson had been named Big 12 Coach of the Year.
Seven Huskers hit better than .300, led by senior Matt Hopper at .382, with 22 home runs and 66 runs-batted-in. Sophomore Curtis Ledbetter, who had redshirted in 2002 after transferring from Garden City Community College, batted .348, with 13 home runs and 54 RBIs.
Senior Jeff Leise hit .325, with seven home runs and 37 RBIs. And freshman third baseman Alex Gordon, who would become “the most decorated player in Nebraska baseball history,” according to the media guide, batted .319, with seven home runs and 48 RBIs to earn Freshman All-America recognition.
Junior left-hander Aaron Marsden was the first-day starter throughout the season—16 appearances, all starts—and finished with an 8-3 record and 2.90 earned-run average. Junior right-hander Quinton Robertson, a transfer from Texarkana College, was 10-2 with a 4.23 ERA.
The 10 wins tied for the Big 12 lead and were the third-most in school history.
Freshman right-hander Tim Schoeminger and junior right-hander Jason Burch were the closers. Schoeminger was 4-2 with a 4.30 ERA and six saves, Burch 4-1 with a 2.89 ERA and five saves.
Anderson’s tenure as Nebraska’s coach was off to a strong start, 47-18, including 20-7 in the Big 12.
The momentum carried over. The Huskers won 24 of their first 29 games, including six of seven in the conference, and were in the national rankings to start the 2004 season.
Four of the five losses—three to warm-weather schools—were by two runs.
But then, inexplicably, Nebraska lost 18 of its final 29 to finish 36-23, including 11-16 in the Big 12. The Huskers had opened the conference tournament with a 5-3 victory against Texas, defending tournament champion with a 48-11 record; the teams had not played during the regular season.
But losses by 7-1 to Oklahoma State and 6-5 to Texas ended the season. For the first time since 1998, Van Horn’s first season, Nebraska would not play in an NCAA regional. Anderson had told his players prior to the Big 12 Tournament that they’d probably have to win it in order continue their season.
Gordon was among the bright spots, earning consensus All-America honors as well as being named Big 12 Player of the Year by the conference coaches. He led the Huskers, batting .365 with 18 home runs, 75 RBIs and a .754 slugging percentage.
Sophomore left-hander Zach Kroenke earned second-team All-Big 12 recognition, Ledbetter and junior shortstop Joe Simokaitas received all-conference honorable mention.
All were featured on the cover of the 2005 media guide, along with Gordon. “Huskers look to contend for Big 12 title, NCAA Regional” the headline on the season outlook said.
They would accomplish more than that, much more, in 2005, what would be the most successful season in Nebraska baseball history.
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.