Friday marked the first day of practice for the Nebraska baseball team. Because of the chilly sub-40-degree temperature outside, the new-look Huskers went inside the Alex Gordon Training Complex to get some hitting and fielding work in.
Though the Huskers will need to replace four captains and two of the three weekend starting pitchers from last year’s team that won a Big Ten Conference championship and appeared in its first NCAA regional final since 2007, there was another reason why the team had a new look—the haircuts.
Members of the team shaved their heads before the first practice, but not because they wanted to make a fashion statement. Instead, it was for a good cause—supporting and raising money for kids with cancer.
Changing the game for kids with cancer.
— Nebraska Baseball (@Husker_Baseball) January 28, 2022
Head coach Will Bolt said his program teamed up with Vs. Cancer, a fundraising campaign of the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation. Bolt did it while at Texas A&M and wanted to do the same at Nebraska. The Huskers raised over $23,000 over the course of the fall and early spring. To cap things off, the team shaved their heads to show support for the kids.
“We all went all-in on it. Some people’s will grow back better than others,” Bolt joked, “but it’s a fun deal we did yesterday and was just kind of a team bonding deal, too.”
The Huskers’ Big Ten Freshman of the Year from last season, Max Anderson, said it’s a weird feeling when he takes his hat off to run his fingers through hair that isn’t there anymore.
“It’s the first time I’ve had short hair in, I don’t know how long,” Anderson said with a smile. “We kind of speculated that it was going to come, and once we found out there was mixed emotions, but we knew it’s for a good cause. Some of us kind of look scary, so it might be good.”
As the Feb. 18 season-opening series against Sam Houston in Huntsville, Texas, gets closer, Bolt laid out two areas where he wants to see his team focus on the most as practice get underway: getting in live at-bats and finding answers at the open position battles. The Huskers lost quite a bit of production at the plate from last season—a combined 252 hits, 32 home runs and 147 RBIs—and will need to replace all three outfield spots along with most of the starting pitching rotation. All four captains from last season’s squad have moved on from the program.
“There are guys who are squaring balls up consistently,” Bolt said. “What are the guys doing on the mound, throwing strikes, multiple first pitches for strikes, trying to iron out who the guys are who are going to be the three weekend starters. And the first weekend we have four starters.”
There’s no doubt that Nebraska ended last season with positive momentum. The loss to Arkansas in the regional final stung obviously, but coming out of the 2021 campaign as a conference champ, getting as far in the postseason as they did and signing a highly-ranked 2021 recruiting class had the Huskers entering fall ball with a lot of energy.
But during that stretch in the fall, which was capped off with the annual Red-White Series, Bolt said the group was more of a “collection of talent” and needed to work hard on “getting the team aspect going.” Now, in late January and only three weeks away from the start of the season, the Huskers are much closer to reaching the point where Bolt wants them.
“I think that’s the momentum that we feel,” Bolt said, “the last couple of weeks that we’ve been going with the small-group stuff, is just getting guys back together, seeing that chemistry—where it’s at and where it’s hopefully going. Just that day-to-day mindset of the urgency it takes to be great. I think this team is starting to grasp that, even as we head into the first full practice.”
Shay Schanaman, who was the team’s third starter on the mound last season, thinks it’s easy for a team to take that momentum from last year into the offseason. But the key for him and his teammates is to keep things in perspective.
One day at a time. One pitch at a time. Live in the moment and not to get ahead of themselves. Those are the things that Bolt and his staff preach.
“It’s easy to bring the momentum into the offseason, to work hard when you know that’s the goal, and that’s what we want to do so we can experience that,” Schanaman said. “So once you get a taste of that, you use it as motivation, but at the same time you have to be in the moment. We’re not going to make a regional on opening weekend, but we can stack them together from the start, and that starts in the offseason, and I think we’ve done a good job of continuing that momentum into the season.”
Schanaman struck out 72 batters against 25 walks last season, but had a 5.08 earned-run average. This offseason he wanted to focus on being more consistent with his routine and preparation. He took the summer off—with a happy balance between throwing and giving his arm rest—and feels like he’s better for it.
The Grand Island native went to work on his pitches: fastball, curveball, slider and the changeup. He said he didn’t really have a changeup going into college. But he’s kept working at the pitch—it’s still not a finished product—which he said is the hardest to throw, but also the hardest to hit.
“I feel like I improved a lot going into the fall,” Schanaman said. “Making strides as a pitcher in general as a whole, fastball command, being able to throw the offspeed consistently and on favorable counts, being able to have all three to four pitches at any given point. Just the consistency aspect of pitching is improved a lot.”
Anderson, who batted .332 with 61 hits, seven home runs and 32 RBIs, said his entire offseason has been slowing down for him now that he’s in his second season. He’s not a wide-eyed freshman any more, and that’s a good thing. Last season felt like it was going at a “rapid pace” but now is more slow and steady. He’s more comfortable, too.
“I’m just kind of feeling good about where I am and not really worrying as much,” Anderson said.
But with experience comes more responsibility. Last season, Anderson had Spencer Schwellenbach to take him aside during drills and tell him what he did wrong and how to correct it. Now, Anderson finds himself doing the same to the young guns.
The Millard West graduate isn’t really a rah-rah guy in the locker room or on the field. But he has his own way of connecting with teammates who are looking up to him.
“I’m not the most outspoken guy, but when we’re doing drills on the field and kind of just working through practice, I like to sometimes pull guys aside and talk to them,” Anderson said. “Not really in front of everybody, but just give them tips and pointers through what maybe might have gone wrong. Because I messed up a bunch in the fall and pretty much learned about everything you could learn, and I just want to try to make it easier on the young guys.”