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
After Nebraska had made its first trip to the College World Series in school history in 2001, and been eliminated in a pair of one-run games, Dave Van Horn talked about recruiting.
“The way we finished this year and what we accomplished, and the new ballpark, we feel like we might be able to have a little bit of a better chance to get some of the more high-profile kids,” he said. “I think this fall is going to be big as far as recruiting for us. Naturally, we would like to sign a lot of high school kids . . . and kids that are going to be top players.”
The new ballpark, which would be Haymarket Park (then Hawks Field at Haymarket Park), had been proposed by NEBCO and Lincoln Mayor Don Wesley in late July of 1999. The $32 million project would involve a partnership between NEBCO, Lincoln and the university.
The Lincoln City Council approved the project in early August of 1999, and Nebraska’s Board of Regents approved it on April 1, 2000. Eleven days later ground was broken. A year later, sod was laid. And on June 1, 2001 the Lincoln Saltdogs opened the first season.
In early August of 2001, the Husker baseball offices were moved from Buck Beltzer Field to Haymarket Park. The first Husker game there was scheduled for March 5, 2002, against Nebraska-Kearney. The field was to be officially dedicated on April 27, against Kansas.
As Van Horn had said before Nebraska’s NCAA super-regional appearance in 2000, his recruiting emphasis would begin in-state, after re-establishing communication with the state’s high school coaches. “There was a major problem when we got here,” he said. “There were some hard feelings from maybe what had gone on before we got here. We tried to smooth it out.”
In-state recruiting was important, Van Horn said. “This is the University of Nebraska. If I was coaching at the University of Oklahoma, I’d want Oklahoma kids.
“We’re going to try to get Nebraska kids first every year and then in surrounding areas. Then we’ll go try to get a star here and there if we have to go to California and Texas. If we go get a kid from far away, hopefully he’s real good. We don’t want to get an average kid from out of state. We’d rather have an average kid from in-state and let him develop.”
“Our philosophy is, if you get an in-state kid, you’re getting the support of his parents. You’re probably getting his aunt and uncle. You’re getting his girlfriend,” said Van Horn. “You’re increasing everything here . . . and that kid’s going to play hard for you every day of the week.”
Van Horn didn’t just talk about an emphasis on in-state recruiting. The 2001 team included 11 letterwinners from Nebraska, including outfielder Jeff Leise, infielders Brandon Eymann and Josh Hesse, as well as pitcher R.D. Spiehs, all regulars. As the Huskers prepared to play their first College World Series game against Cal State Fullerton, the Omaha World-Herald ran a photo of nine of the 11 under the bold headline: “Nebraskans on NU Roster Reach the Promised Land.”
Leise was second on the team in hitting, with a .380 average. Spiehs made 21 pitching appearances, including 10 starts, and finished 8-3 with a 4.78 earned-run-average and one save.
Nebraska’s first College World Series team also reflected Van Horn’s willingness to recruit wherever he could find talent. Outfielders John Cole and Adam Stern were from Canada.
In-state Huskers would be an important part of the 2002 season, as well. The post-fall roster included 15 in-state players, six of them freshmen and another a junior college transfer. Most notable of the freshmen were outfielder Daniel Bruce and pitcher Brian Duensing, both from Omaha.
“There’s a lot of talent in this state,” Van Horn had said in early June of 2000. “Sometimes it’s a little underdeveloped because they haven’t been outside enough.”
But, he added: “I think the coaches in this state are doing a tremendous job.”