Take Me Out to the Ballgame is a multi-part series looking back at Nebraska baseball’s rise to College World Series contenders. Read part one here.
The headline on the season preview in the 1999 Nebraska baseball media guide said: “Huskers Have High Expectations.” The season would be Dave Van Horn’s second as head coach. The team would include 11 returning players and 20 newcomers, 10 of them freshmen.
Van Horn’s first team at Nebraska had gone 24-20, including 10-13 in the Big 12.
The Huskers were “probably two years away, a year away,” Van Horn said before they left for the season-opening Showdown in the Desert in Phoenix.
Their first game was against New Mexico State.
Whether it would be one year or two “just depends on these young freshmen and how they can do, the experience they get this year and then next year if they’re game-ready from day one,’” said Van Horn. “This year, it’s probably going to take a month or so before they get their feet wet.”
They would have “good outings and bad outings,” he said.
“There’s usually a 10- or 11-game swing on whether you can win those tight games. Last year, we didn’t win any of them early. We lost a lot of tight games.”
Nebraska won 20 of its first 26 games in 1999, including eight of nine in the Big 12. Five of those first six losses were by two or fewer runs, only two of the 20 victories by two or fewer. But the Huskers scored 10 or more runs in 15 of the games. Offense was the order of the day.
Among Nebraska’s 10 freshmen was an all-state second baseman/shortstop from Conroe, Texas, Will Bolt, “one of the top young infielders on the team,” according to the media guide.
Either he or John Cole, a freshman from Kanata, Ontario, Canada, would be the second baseman, Van Horn said. “They both can run. Cole’s the fastest kid on the team. He’s just an outstanding athlete.
“There’s no doubt in my mind if he wanted to play Division I football, he could. He ran a 6.41 60 (yard dash) for us at one time,” said Van Horn. “I think he got clocked at 6.5 in the finals that counted.”
In addition to competing for the job at second, Bolt would back up junior college transfer Brandt Vlieger at shortstop, Van Horn said. “Bolt is good enough to play short and does a good job.”
Bolt would be the regular second baseman, with 48-of-55 starts there. He would start five games at shortstop and two games at third. Cole started 18 games in left field, 12 at second base.
Six starters returned, including Ken Harvey and Danny Kimura, the leading hitters in 1998. Harvey, a first baseman/designated hitter, batted .373 with seven home runs and 39 runs-batted-in. Kimura, a third baseman/outfielder, hit .340 with eight home runs and a team-high 41 RBIs.
“Kenny Harvey is really streaky at the plate,” said Van Horn.
“If we could get a big year out of him that would be a major plus.”
The 6-foot-2, 250-pound Harvey also was “outstanding defensively,” Van Horn said.
And he was a “good athlete,” said Van Horn. “He ran a 6.8 60 in the off-season. Actually, it was a little faster, but I still don’t believe it, so I won’t quote it.”
Senior left-hander Jay Sirianni, a captain, and junior right-hander Chad Wiles were the top returning pitchers. Twelve of the newcomers were pitchers, six of them freshmen. One of those six was a 5-foot-8, 160-pound right-hander from Honolulu, the focus of our next story.