After checking in with respective head coaches, Rick Heller, John Anderson and Darin Erstad, to share notes on the falls of Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, here’s a rundown of thoughts pertaining to the three programs, a trio responsible for the last three Big Ten championships and a combined five regional appearances over that period.
At home at State U.
Anderson and Erstad are alumni of the programs they head and Heller is an Iowa native who knows the Hawkeye State inside and out. In talking to each, what’s foremost apparent is the pride they place in leading their state’s flagship school. It would be silly to suggest they’re coaching harder than coaches who may not have deeply rooted ties to their program, but it is clear that the highs experienced over the lat five years in Iowa City, Lincoln and Minneapolis are extra special to the men at the helm of these Big Ten programs.
Minnesota’s 2018 is a blueprint for Nebraska in 2019
Helping power the Gophers to the program’s first super regional appearance was a strong, pitching-heavy freshman class. While it’s hard to expect a freshman to be named the Big Ten’s Pitcher of the Year, and have another freshman go on to play for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, it’s not unrealistic to expect freshmen pitchers to player a leading role in a team’s success. It’s too be seen if they can be just as effective as Joshua Culliver, Patrick Fredrickson, Max Meyer and company were for the Gophers, but in Bo Blessie, Colby Gomes and Spencer Schwellenbach, Nebraska has three potential frontline arms with high ceilings and the stuff to lead a powerful rookie class of pitchers themselves.
Big XII showdowns
A lot has been made on this blog about how the Big Ten is displaying a greater capability of being able to stand up and go toe-to-toe against the Pac 12. And with Nebraska playing four games against Oregon State, Minnesota facing the Beavers twice in the first three weeks of the season, and Nebraska hosting Arizona State for a weekend series in May, there will be more opportunities to size up the two Rose Bowl-bounded conferences. But between these three, there will also be key series against Big XII programs, a conference that poses a significant threat in recruiting, given its geographic makeup. Key an eye on these three series, that figure to have regional implications, but could also help steer conversations on the recruiting trail:
Iowa at Oklahoma State, March 1-3
Nebraska vs. Baylor, March 8-10
Minnesota vs. Oklahoma, April 19-21
Anderson isn’t tinkering with what’s not broken
As Minnesota’s season ended in the Corvallis Super Regional, though painful to be so close to the College World Series, there was reason to look forward to the 2019 season with what Fredrickson and Meyer showed in the final game of their freshman season. A Minnesota rotation with the two right-handed pitchers at the top would draw preseason praise and potentially have the Gophers as conference favorites. Except that’s not going to happen. Anderson and Minnesota’s staff is electing to keep Meyer as the closer and leaning to having Fredrickson resume his Saturday duties. While utilizing Meyer as a two-way player sort of forces their hand in managing his workload, recent years have seen multiple standout closers try to be turned into weekend starters and not have the same success: Scott Effross (Indiana), Colton Howell (Nebraska), Riley McCauley (Michigan State), and Yianni Pavlopoulos (Ohio State) to name a few. Credit Minnesota for realizing it’s really hard for pitchers to step in and do what Meyer did a year ago.
Oh what a Big Ten West could be
In football, the Big Ten’s East Division drives the conversation, with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State leading one of the best divisions in college football. When looking at the recent run of success in Big Ten baseball, an equally strong division could be found in the conference, if there were division.
Since 2012, Big Ten West teams have combined for 11 regional appearances and have claimed five of seven conference championships. And with the continued rise in talent in prep baseball in Wisconsin, the state produced Nebraska’s Scott Schreiber, Minnesota’s Terrin Vavra, one thinks a would-be Badger program could be competitive. Playing more games regularly against this half of the conference could have pushed Minnesota over the bubble in 2017, Illinois in 2014 and 2018. But, without Wisconsin sponsoring baseball, we have a one-division, 13-team Big Ten conference, and only a hypothetical of what could be a dynamite college baseball division.
Breakout season candidates
Between what was shared from the head coaches and personal observations over the past few years, among these three teams, a player from each I expect to take a step forward and be a key contributor to their respective team:
Iowa- Jr. RHP Grant Judkins
Minnesota- Jr. C Eli Wilson
Nebraska- Soph. OF Keegan Watson
Will tough schedules help or hurt postseason chances?
The non-conference schedules Anderson, Erstad and Heller put together can stack up against any in the country as far as being challenging and unforgiving. And Each coach suggested they wouldn’t change a thing about them, that they’re players want and expect to play against and that’s how championship teams are built. But with turnover in critical players for each, the need for players to step in and grow up fast, will all three clubs be ready to take on some of the country’s best early and often? As Erstad said, it won’t take long to find out what the players of these teams are made of.
Iowa-Nebraska has the makings to be the Big Ten’s best rivalry.
Without Wisconsin, no divisions and an odd-number of teams, the Big Ten operates on a three-year scheduling cycle. As teams have eight conference series a year, not playing four teams, each team will play at home, away and skip every opponent over a three-year period. That last aspect flat out stinks as it means there will be rivalry contests that are skipped. That leaves Michigan and Michigan State and Indiana and Purdue to scheduling mid-week games to ensure they play each other every season. That agreement will hopefully as extend to Iowa and Nebraska.
With Iowa baseball sustaining its most successful period on the diamond in a generation, the fan base and support growing, and Nebraska baseball being Nebraska baseball, these border rivals need to play every year. How the two compete for recruits on either side of the Missouri River, both helping draw more than 10,000 people to TD Ameritrade Park for Big Ten Tournament title games, and Iowa having a good bit of success in Lincoln of late, the ingredients are there for a fun, competitive and passionate rivalry to blossom.
Get ready for them to run
Both Anderson and Heller alluded to their respective teams likely to have more action on the bases this year, with neither team having a big time slugger to anchor the lineup, nor the ability to wait for hits to string together. Iowa worked extensively on hit-and-run situations this fall and Minnesota made it a point of emphasis to steal more bases.
And looking at who left, who returns and the makeup of the players that joined the program, I suspect there will be more aggressive play on the bases for Nebraska, too. Nebraska’s 34 stolen bases were last in the Big Ten in 2018, Iowa’s 39 only one rung better, while Minnesota was in the middle of the pack with 67. It’ll be worth watching to see is those numbers increase and how effective a change in offensive style ends up being.
Recent success isn’t going away
Just a gut feeling here, although one based on how the teams are recruiting, the desire to invest in facilities, the coaches who are leading the programs and the state of the Big Ten, it’s easy to see multiple regional berths for each program over the next three years. In Iowa City, Lincoln and Minneapolis, there is an expectation level that wasn’t there five years ago. All three programs have made headwinds nationally and are viewed as places where players can compete against college baseball’s best and walk away with more than a few wins. There’s reason to be optimistic for the 2019 season for each of these three programs.