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
Consider the words of Dave Van Horn in early June of 2001: “It doesn’t matter if you get beat by 15 or you lose two one-run games, you don’t want to go 0-2 out of here. And I’ll guarantee you, if I could have won a one-run game here and (then) got beat 30-0 . . . I’d take it because the embarrassment of that 30-0 (loss) probably wouldn’t hurt as bad as losing two and going home.”
Van Horn had just summarized the first trip to the College World Series in Nebraska history.
But first, how the Huskers got there:
After winning both the Big 12 regular-season title and the conference tournament, Nebraska played host to an NCAA regional for the first time and swept three games, defeating Northern Iowa 16-6 and then defeating No. 2 seed Rutgers, 5-4 and 14-10.
Matt Hopper was among three Huskers to hit home runs against Northern Iowa and drove in five runs. Rutgers scored three runs in the top of the first of the second regional game but didn’t score again until the ninth, with R.D. Spiehs pitching 5.1 innings of scoreless relief, and John Cole hit home runs in both Rutgers games, the first of which drew a Buck Beltzer record crowd of 4,936.
Attendance for the three regional games was 14,121.
Next up, Nebraska played host to the first NCAA super-regional in school history, of course, knocking out Rice—to whom it had lost in the season-opener 16-2—in two games, 7-0 and 9-6.
Announced attendance for the first game was 5,353, for the second 5,454.
Shane Komine pitched a three-hit shutout in the first game, striking out 12 and walking three. The Huskers had eight hits, drew seven walks and stole six bases. Cole drove in three runs.
Komine, who threw 162 pitches, had to wait out a 51-minute rain delay.
Rice scored five runs in the first three innings of the second game and held a 5-3 lead in the top of the ninth. Adam Stern drove in two runs, with a bases-loaded single, to tie the score and Cole singled in the go-ahead run. Rice responded with one in the bottom of the ninth, before the Huskers scored three in the top of the 10th—two on a Jeff Leise single. Rice couldn’t score against Thom Ott.
Will Bolt caught a pop-up at shortstop for the final out.
Leise led the players in a victory lap of the field as some fans chanted “Good-bye Buck.” The game was the last to be played there. Most chanted “Omaha,” however.
Nebraska was headed to the College World Series for the first time.
“Hey, it had to start sometime,” senior Dan Johnson said. “Why not make it a tradition.”
The Huskers opened against top-seed Cal State-Fullerton on Friday night, June 8. Attendance was 22,889, including Tom Osborne and Kevin Costner, a Cal State-Fullerton grad.
Komine pitched a complete game, allowing seven hits and four earned runs, striking out nine and walking only one. But two of the hits were home runs, including a two-run shot in a three-run first inning. Komine had allowed three runs combined in the first inning all season.
The 5-4 loss snapped his 14-game winning streak.
Cole hit two solo home runs, but Husker batters struck out 14 times.
On Sunday, before a crowd of 23,047, after Nebraska had taken a 3-1 lead, Tulane scored four in the sixth and held on for a 6-5 victory. Johnson and Jed Morris hit solo home runs.
Johnson finished the season with a school-record 25 home runs. He drove in 86 runs and batted .361. Cole batted .418, with 11 home runs and 61 RBIs. Matt Hopper’s numbers were: .358, 11, 85.
Komine was 14-2, with a 3.35 earned-run average and 157 strikeouts in 131.2 innings. Ott was 5-2 with a 3.88 ERA and 11 saves in 27 relief appearances.
Let’s return to Van Horn the day after the Tulane loss: “We’re competitive. We belonged here. Maybe we weren’t in the upper echelon, but I feel like we belonged here.”
The 2001 Husker team had accomplished something no other had. “No team has ever won the Big 12 and the Big 12 Tournament (in the same season). (And) we’re the first northern team to win the Big 12 championship,” said Van Horn. “No one ever thought we could do it. And we did it.”
He said he told his players not to hang their heads, and “I told them, ‘For a couple of hours, I’m going to think about today and the season. And to be honest with you, on the bus ride back to Lincoln, I’m going to be thinking about next year.’”
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.