Chris Webb

Big Ten baseball’s 19 things to look forward to in ’19

The next time the calendar reads the 15th, it will be opening day for the Division I college baseball season.

Although teams are still a little more than a week for holding spring practice, the upcoming season is getting closer and closer, it’s time to focus on the 2019 version of the Road to Omaha.

Kicking off preseason coverage, what is 10 Innings looking forward to most this season? Here’s 19 things to look forward to over the 2019 campaign.

1) Does Minnesota cement its dynasty?

The reigning Big Ten champions had a season for the ages in 2018, appearing in a super regional for the first time in program history. (Minnesota had reached the College World Series before the current NCAA Tournament format.) Going 44-15, the Gophers claimed a second Big Ten title in three years. Every five years or so, the Big Ten sees a program jump to the front of the pack and run off with multiple titles in a short window. Before Indiana went back-to-back in 2013-14, Michigan claimed three straight from 2006-08. At the turn of the millennium, Minnesota were Big Ten champs from 2002-04. And going on 25 years now, Ohio State finished atop the Big Ten standings for five straight seasons, starting in 1991. With a deeper returning lineup than many may believe, and arguably the deepest pitching staff in the conference, and a challenging pre-conference schedule to lead the Gophers into the Big Ten battle-tested, is another title in store, cementing Minnesota as the dominant program of the 2000’s second decade?

 

2) Will there be another 20-home run star?

Etching his name into the Big Ten record book, Jake Adams’ lone season at Iowa was historic, grabbing the nation’s attention with a 29-home run season in 2017. The record appeared to be in danger less than a year later as Illinois’ Bren Spillane opened the 2018 season on a historic tear. An ankle injury saw the Illini first basemen miss a few games in the middle of the season, slowing his momentum, forcing Spillane to finish with only 23 home runs. Will the 2019 season have another slugger emerge and rewrite school records in the process? Michigan’s Jesse Franklin is the conference’s returning home run leader with 10, but’s worth nothing he was able to reach double digits as a freshman.

 

3) Mercer’s homecoming

On their third coach in five years, Indiana will see if the highs over the last decade can be carried over into next one. And if that’s the case, it’s likely first-year head coach Jeff Mercer will be the lone Hoosier head coach for a long, long time. Mercer, an Indiana native, is now in charge of steering the baseball program he’s always dreamed of leading. After two strong years at Wright State, leading the program current Penn State coach Rob Cooper built up, Mercer brings leads an All-Indiana staff to a program he’s determined to make Indiana’s signature college baseball team. Indiana returns a strong roster from last year’s Austin Regional runners-up team, and are now lead by a coach viewed as one of college baseball’s top young coaches. Putting it all together, does 2019 become a very special season in Mercer’s homecoming?

 

4) March 6-8 tournaments

If you’re looking to get a pretty big bang for your buck with a jam-packed Big Ten weekend, March 6-8 is a weekend to circle. On opposite coasts, a pair of tournaments have two Big Ten teams participating, and a third tournament features some bluebloods of college baseball. Circle this weekend and watch the fun unfold, especially in the Pacific Northwest where two of the Big Ten’s expected top teams can go a long way in show they’re also two of the country’s top teams.

Dodgertown College Baseball Classic

Michigan @ UCLA, @ USC, vs. Oklahoma State

Greenville Drive 1st Pitch Invitational

Michigan State vs. Western Carolina, Ohio State, Furman, Appalachian State

Ohio State vs. Furman, Michigan State, Western Carolina

Seattle Baseball Showcase

Indiana vs. Washington, Oregon State, San Diego

Minnesota vs. Oregon State, San Diego, Washington

 

5) Who bounces back?

Five key players I want to see if there is a bounceback season in 2019, players team will ask a lot of, after struggling in 2018:

Nebraska senior shortstop Angelo Altavilla

Penn State junior left-handed pitcher Dante Biasi

Maryland senior shortstop AJ Lee

Michigan senior second baseman Ako Thomas

Illinois senior outfielder Jack Yalowitz

 

6) Seeing if Rutgers takes the next step

The 2019 season will be Rutgers fifth as a Big Ten member. The Scarlet Knights are 0-for-4 in participating in a Big Ten Tournament. But after a staff shakeup, 2018 saw progress for Joe Literrio’s club. Rutgers went 25-25 on the season, a seven and one-half game improvement over the 2017 season, and finished at least .500 for the first time since 2014. Now the onus is for Rutgers to avoid unraveling in the Big Ten. On April 11, Rutgers was 18-11 overall and claimed Big Ten wins over Penn State and Michigan State before finishing 7-14. Literrio has worked to increase the talent level in Piscataway, and the Scarlet Knights should have one of its better rosters going back to Todd Fraizer’s days. Now it’s time to see if potential meets production and Rutgers takes the next step and shows they are ready to meet the Big Ten’s upward trend.

 

7) Max Meyer at the plate

Armed with a weapon of a wipeout slider, Minnesota closer Max Meyer pitched his way to All-America honors and onto USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team in 2018. It doesn’t hurt Meyer’s fastball can comfortably sit in the mid-90s, too. But for everything he did and can do on the mound, Meyer arrived in Minnesota as a two-way player. The dominance Meyer exhibited on the mound as a freshman took the bat out of his hands after 30 at-bats,. But the Gophers are set to unleash the two-way Meyer this spring. Either in left field or at DH, Meyer was a high school shortstop but he will not see the infield to keep his arm fresh, Minnesota plans to insert Meyer in the heart of their lineup. With Meyer focusing just on hitting and baserunning this fall, reports out of Minneapolis were glowing. The Gopher staff believes Meyer has just as much potential at the plate as Matt Fieller showed in 2016, when that two-way Gopher batted .366 and slugged .525 en route to honor Big Ten Player of the Year honors. If that’s the case, the most dynamic player in the country may be Meyer.

 

8) Purdue as a hunted

Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski has garnered national attention for the job he has done in West Lafayette. And it’s certainly just praise. It took only two years to take Purdue from the Big Ten’s basement and into a regional. The Boilermakers did not hide that they used preseason predictions of finishing outside of the Big Ten’s top six for motivation. But now, after finishing second in the conference and drawing slaps on the back and repeated praise, is the same hunger there? How Purdue fares this year, and if there is sustained success now and in the years to come, may be more indicative of Wasikowski’s coaching ability than last season. With high expectations, does Purdue keep moving along?

 

9) Is this the year Michigan finishes strong?

Michigan enters the season as Big Ten favorites by national outlets, and ranked in some polls. The Wolverines are looking to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years, and many predict them to do so. But is this the year that Erik Bakich’s team finishes May with a head of momentum? A 2-9 finish to the 2016 cost U-M a potential NCAA Tournament berth, as did last year’s 2-7 swoon to conclude the season. And in the year Michigan did play in a regional, the Wolverines went 0-2, that on the heels of an 0-2 showing in the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan has won 111 games over the last three seasons, nothing at all to sneeze at, the how each season has finished has left more to be desired out of Ann Arbor. The Wolverines are set to have a number beside their name to open the season, will they have one with the final out is recorded?

 

10) Seth Lonsway’s debut

Before Patrick Fredrickson and Meyer helped guided Minnesota to a top 10 finish, the freshman pitcher expected to turn heads was Ohio State southpaw Seth Lonsway. Able to run it into the mid-90s, and turning down a six-figure offer from the Cincinnati Reds to head to Columbus, Lonsway was the Big Ten’s top recruit according to Baseball America. But how a high school course was registered with the NCAA Clearinghouse prevented Lonsway to being eligible as a freshman, unable to contribute to Ohio State’s regional-bound club. Now, with the Buckeyes needing to replace their entire rotation, the time couldn’t be better for Lonsway to debut and hopefully be the impact, blue-chip prospect Greg Beals needs as the Bucks seek a third regional in four years.

 

11) A dynamic freshman class

More and more, freshman are making a big impact in the Big Ten, and this year figures to be no different. Ohio State is set to rely on a quartet of freshman arms, in addition to Lonsway, as they seek to end a 10-year title drought. Illinois has a ballyhooed recruiting class, with high-ceiling rookies at catcher (Jacob Campbell), shortstop (Branden Comia), and on the mound (Aidan Maldonando). Nebraska shortstop and right-handed pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach may by the most dynamic freshman Nebraska’s had as a Big Ten member, while teammates Bo Blessie and Colby Gomes headed to Lincoln after esteemed prep careers. Maryland sees a bright future in Maxwell Costes, the younger brother of former standout Marty. Minnesota likes their freshman haul, Michigan has another banner coast-to-coast class, as do in-state peer Michigan State. Gone are the days of seeing teams rely on upperclassmen to lead them to titles and into the postseason. Freshman are continually being expected to contributor in key roles and this year’s crop should have plenty that step up and do just that.

 

12) Will ninth innings being a collective roller coaster?

Last year, five Big Ten closers recorded at least 13 saves:

Minnesota’s Max Meyer- 16

Ohio State’s Seth Kinker- 15

Purdue’s Ross Learnard- 15

Illinois’ Joey Gerber- 14

Nebraska’s Jake Hohensee- 13.

Only Meyer returns. Iowa and Michigan will also be without their saves leader in 2018, forcing at least half of the Big Ten’s ninth-inning duties up for grabs around the conference. As Meyer, Kinker and Learnard were on teams playing the in the NCAA Tournament, it certainly helps Omaha-aspiring teams to have a stopped at the end of the bullpen. Who will step up in those roles this year, or will everyone but John Anderson be on edge as the last few outs are attempted to be recorded?

 

13) High how does Matt Gorski’s draft stock rise?

One of the best all-around Big Ten prospects of the last five years, Indiana’s Matt Gorski has shown an ability to play multiple positions, run, get on base and hit with pop. Entering the season as the top positional Big Ten prospect in a quick, by way of a quick informal poll of scouts, just how high can Gorski’s stock rise? In 2016, Nebraska’s Ryan Boldt and Ohio State’s Ronnie Dawson were the respective 53rd and 62nd overall picks of the draft, can Gorski go higher? Before those two, other high outfield draft picks include Michigan’s Ryan LaMarre, 62nd in 2010 and Minnesota’s Mike Kvasnicka, 33rd in 2009.

 

14) More Big Ten/Pac-12 showdowns

The Big Ten and Pac-12 split 28 games last season; a 12-12 draw in the regular season, before Minnesota twice beat UCLA in the Minneapolis Regional, then twice falling to eventual national champion Oregon State in the Corvallis Super Regional. Although there is not a Big Ten/Pac-12 / DQ Classic this year, the 2019 schedule is still loaded with contests between the two Rose Bowl-linked conferences that should make for fun viewing. In additional to the March 6-8 tournaments keep an eye on:

Nebraska vs. Oregon State, Feb. 21-24

Michigan State @ Arizona State, March 1-3

Arizona State @ Nebraska, May 10-12

Arizona @ Penn State, May 16-18

 

15) And marquee Big Ten-Big XII series

And it’s not just the Pac-12 that the Big Ten has quite the buffet of contests against. These five series versus Big XII schools have the potential to be resume bullets come NCAA Tournament selection time.

Purdue @ Texas, Feb. 22-24

Iowa @ Oklahoma State, March 1-3

Baylor @ Nebraska, March 8-10

Michigan @ Texas Tech, March 21-23

Oklahoma @ Minnesota, April 19-21

 

16) Illinois’ ability to repeat history

Taking a short trip down memory lane, Illinois should have been in the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Going 32-21 overall, and 17-7 in the Big Ten, the Illini put together an NCAA-worthy resume, including a sweep of SEC champion Florida, scoring 11 runs against one in two contests against the Gators. But Dan Hartleb’s team was only good enough to be one of the first teams outside the field of 64 in the eyes of the selection committee. That snub helped fuel the fire of Illinois in 2015, as the Illini blitzed the Big Ten, winning 21 of 22 games, put together a 27-game winning streak, earned the No. 6 national seed and hosted the program’s first super regional. Now, after Illinois was one of the first teams outside of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, returns their entire rotation and six starters, is history set to repeat itself and a pissed off Orange and Blue club leaves no doubt of its regional worthiness?

 

17) Patrick Fredrickson’s encore

In the 25 seasons of the Big Ten naming a Pitcher of the Year, only once has a pitcher earned the honor in two consecutive seasons: Ohio State’s Alex Wimmers, 2009-2010. There has also been another one-time feat, that is of a freshman claiming the title, which happened last year as Minnesota right-handed pitcher Patrick Fredrickson was name the top freshman and pitcher in the conference. With a Big Ten-best 1.86 ERA, Fredrickson turned in a perfect 9-0 season and seemingly turned heads every weekend, brilliant from start to finish. Now that Big Ten batters will have their second go at the lanky righty, can he keep opposing batters to a .209 batting average? Is another All-America season in store? Few will have had the expectations that are being placed on Fredrickson heading into year two, it’ll be fun to see if he lives up to them and resets an already high bar.

 

18) Can the Big Ten host multiple regionals?

For all of the postseason progress the Big Ten has made over the last half-dozen years-a team in Omaha, multiple national seeds, three different regional hosts, multiple years with at least five regional participants and four different super regional participants-one accomplishment has remained outside of the conference’s grasp: multiple regional hosts. Under the NCAA Tournament’s current format, never have two Big Ten programs hosted a regional in the same tournament. With the conference sending at least three teams to the tournament in every year since 2015, it seems it’s only a matter of time before that happens. Will the 20th anniversary of the current format of the 64-team tournament be the year it happens?

 

19) The end of winter

Just kidding, this is the Big Ten, prepare for a mid-April cancellation to due cold temperatures and snow. And just as the Midwest and East Coast is blanketed in a fresh cover of snow, it’s time to welcome to the college baseball season.

WDWS Radio to Cover Complete Illini Baseball Schedule

Champaign, Ill. — WDWS 1400-AM will once again cover the Illinois baseball team during the 2019 season through an agreement with Learfield. All regular season games plus the postseason will be available online and most will be available live on WDWS, pending conflicts with the Fighting Illini men’s and women’s basketball teams.

Dave Loane returns for his 31st season as the primary play-by-play voice of the Illini baseball team. Scott Beatty will cover at least the first four road trips, which includes the season’s first 13 games Feb. 15-March 10, before Loane finishes his duties as play-by-play talent for the Illini women’s basketball team.

The Illini baseball home opener is Friday, March 15 against Southern Illinois. The Big Ten opener is scheduled for Friday, March 29 at Iowa.

In addition to radio coverage, all Illinois home games will be covered by Big Ten Network or a free online video stream. The Big Ten’s television schedule will be announced at a later date.

Iowa Announces 2019 Team Captains

Iowa City, Iowa— Seniors Mitchell Boe, Cole McDonald, and Chris Whelan, and redshirt junior Kyle Shimp have been voted team captains for the 2019 University of Iowa baseball season, it was announced Monday by head coach Rick Heller.

Shimp is a team captain for a second straight season.

Boe, a second baseman from Naperville, Illinois, started 50 games as a junior, where he hit .266 with 23 runs, 23 RBIs, and 10 doubles, while McDonald went 3-2 with a 3.23 ERA in 2018. The right-handed pitcher from New Hampton, Iowa, is slated to be Iowa’s Friday starter for the 2019 season.

Whelan, an outfielder from Naperville, Illinois, hit .308 as a junior as the Hawkeyes’ leadoff hitter after missing the first month of the season because of injury. He hit safely in 31-of-38 games and had 13 multi-hit contests.

Shimp, a left-handed pitcher from Yorkville, Illinois, appeared in nine games in 2018 before missing the final two months because of injury.

The Hawkeyes open the season Feb. 15 at the Diamond 9 Sunshine State Classic Series in Kissimmee, Florida. Iowa faces George Mason on Opening Day.

Michigan State’s McLane Stadium Getting Lights

East Lansing, Mich. — Thanks in large part to an anonymous contribution of near $1.4 million from a Spartan alum, Michigan State University announced that lights will be installed at McLane Stadium at Kobs Field, the home of MSU baseball and Secchia Stadium, the home of MSU softball, in preparation for the upcoming 2019 season.

“This is an exciting enhancement to McLane Stadium at Kobs Field and Secchia Stadium, and will improve what are already excellent venues for college baseball and softball,” MSU Athletic Director Bill Beekman said. “Having lights will not only bolster the student-athlete experience, but will allow our baseball and softball student-athletes to still attend their classes during the day and then play games at night. We are excited about the opportunity to improve the atmospheres at Spartan baseball and softball games.”

The LED lights will be identical to the lighting system currently at Spartan Stadium, home of Spartan football, and DeMartin Stadium, home of Spartan men and women’s soccer, as well the Breslin Center, home of MSU men and women’s basketball, Munn Ice Arena, home of Spartan hockey, and the Duffy Daugherty Indoor Practice Facility, utilized by MSU football and a majority of MSU athletics teams. Michigan State will be the first baseball and softball teams in the Big Ten Conference with this type of lighting system by Musco Lighting.

“This is a game-changer for our program and it’s something that we’ve wanted to do for a while now, and fortunately, we now have the opportunity to get that done,” MSU baseball head coach Jake Boss Jr. said. “Special thanks to our Board of Trustees, Bill Beekman, Greg Ianni, Chuck Sleeper and their staffs for all their hard word in making night baseball at McLane Stadium at Kobs Field a reality starting this spring. We’ve seen the exciting environments that our soccer programs have had from the lights and the atmosphere for the student-athletes and the fans, and we’re looking forward to showcasing a beautiful facility and a great atmosphere after the sun goes down this spring. Playing at night and having the option to play later in the day gives us a lot more flexibility with regard to class time and with regard to weather. It enables us the assurance of finishing a game, and in a very competitive conference where every game is extremely important, the ability to finish a game and not have it stopped or halted because of daylight is extremely important.”

MSU baseball will host nine games starting at 5 p.m. or later, while Spartan softball will host seven.

“This is unbelievably exciting for Michigan State softball. Lights at Secchia Stadium will be a game-changer for our program,” MSU softball head coach Jacquie Joseph said. “Our players deserve the opportunity to play and finish every scheduled game. This affords us the flexibility to schedule when our fans can watch; both on TV and in person. I am beyond grateful to the Board of Trustees for approving the plan, Bill Beekman and Greg Ianni for their work on this project, the Spartan Fund and the lead donor who made this project possible. We’re extremely excited to play under the lights this spring and can’t wait for the outstanding atmosphere it’s going to create for our fans in making games at Secchia Stadium even more exciting.”

Joseph and the Spartan softball team open the 2019 campaign on Feb. 8 in Florida, with their home-opener slated for Thursday, March 14 vs. Western Michigan
at 4 p.m. The first night game at Secchia Stadium is scheduled for Friday, March 22 vs. Penn State at 6 p.m.

Boss and the MSU baseball team begin the 2019 season on Friday, Feb. 15 in New Orleans, before opening the home portion of the schedule on Wednesday, March 20 vs. Central Michigan at 4:05 p.m. The first night game at McLane Stadium at Kobs Field is slated for Friday, April 5 vs. Indiana State at 6:35 p.m.

Jason Kendall to Speak at Penn State Baseball’s 2019 First Pitch Dinner

University Park, Penn. – Former all-star catcher and Pittsburgh Pirate Jason Kendall will headline Penn State baseball’s seventh annual First Pitch Dinner, which will be held Friday, Feb. 1 at The Penn Stater Hotel & Conference Center. Doors will open at 6 p.m.

The event will include dinner, a silent auction, introduction of the 2019 Penn State baseball team and Kendall’s keynote address. Doors will open for the general public at 6 p.m. with a cash bar and auction items on display.

The cost is $60 per person for adults and $30 for children ages 3 to 12. Alumni, fans and friends of the Penn State baseball program can reserve their seats by registering at GoPSUsports.com. The deadline to register is Jan. 24.

Sponsorship opportunities are also available, even for those unable to attend.

· Penn State player sponsorships are available for $100 to help cover the costs of complimentary admissions for team members.

· VIP tables for 10 can be purchased for $1,000, which includes recognition during the banquet, invitation to the VIP Social, opportunities to meet with Kendall, the Penn State coaching staff and other VIP guests and other amenities.

· Additionally, banquet sponsorships are available, which include all of the VIP table benefits plus mentions in all further materials leading up to the banquet. The largest banquet sponsor will have Kendall seated at their table.

For more details and information on sponsorship opportunities, contact Kirk Diehl in the Varsity ‘S’ Club at varsitys@athletics.psu.edu or 814-867-2202.

All proceeds will benefit Penn State baseball, and the team will donate 20 percent of funds raised at the dinner to THON, a student-run philanthropy committed to enhancing the lives of children and families impacted by childhood cancer.

Kendall was a first-round pick in the 1992 MLB draft by the Pirates and made his major league debut in 1996. He was named to the 1996, 1998 and 2000 all-star games, starting behind the plate in 2000. Kendall played with the Pirates through 2004 and also played for the Oakland Athletics (2005-07), Chicago Cubs (2007), Milwaukee Brewers (2008-09) and Kansas City Royals (2010).

The complete 2019 baseball schedule is available at GoPSUsports.com. Ticket, promotional and broadcast information will be announced at a future date. Fill out this survey to receive ticket information as soon as it is released: https://gopsusports.com/sb_output.aspx?form=55

Illini Baseball to Build Susan and Clint Atkins Baseball Training Center


Champaign, Ill. – The University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics announced today that it will break ground on a new state-of-the-art indoor practice facility for the Fighting Illini baseball program, and that a lead naming gift of $3.0 million has been pledged by Susie Atkins. The facility, which will go before the University of Illinois Board of Trustees for final approval at its January meeting, will be named the Susan and Clint Atkins Baseball Training Center.

This donation, which makes the Illinois baseball building a reality, is the second major Illinois Athletics facility gift from the Atkins Family. The first was the $2.5 million donation for the Atkins Tennis Center, completed in 1991. The Atkins Tennis Center’s creation sparked the beginning of the great national and Big Ten success the Illinois tennis programs enjoy today. One of the first in the country to house both indoor and outdoor courts with locker rooms and a pro shop, the facility was voted one of the most outstanding by the USTA in 1992, shortly after its dedication.

“I am very pleased and honored to make this donation to the University of Illinois for the Susan and Clint Atkins Baseball Training Center,” Susie Atkins said. “Thirty years ago my husband, Clint, and I made a donation to the University’s Atkins Tennis Center and through the years, Illinois has never forgotten that gift and has been extremely generous with their gratitude. Now, I am proud to be in a position to assist in the training of the Illini Baseball team. The program is under great leadership with Coach Hartleb and the athletes are talented, competitive, bright, young men. The training center is going to provide year-round development space regardless of time or weather.

“Josh Whitman and Howard Milton came to me with this opportunity, and I couldn’t pass it up,” Atkins added. “The University benefitted us in so many ways and has given the community a wonderful way of life. It not only provides this community with opportunities to educate, but also jobs for a working force. I know my husband would be proud that myself, his children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren are adding to what we started 30 years ago.”

The Susan and Clint Atkins Baseball Training Center will be approximately 26,000 square feet and will include a large training space and an adjoining recruiting lounge. The training space encompasses an entire baseball infield with ceiling-mounted nets for hitting and pitching practice. The complex will be adorned with a new grand entrance for Fighting Illini Baseball. The $8 million facility will connect to the current clubhouse and locker rooms and should be completed by 2021.

“It is hard to put into words what the Atkins family has meant to our entire community,” head baseball coach Dan Hartleb said. “During my 29 years in Champaign, I have admired both Susie and the late Clint as well as Suzette, Todd, Spencer and their families. The Atkins have given much more than anyone truly realizes to make Champaign-Urbana a thriving community and to position the University of Illinois for long-term success. I will make sure that during my tenure, every Illinois player who walks through the doors of the Susie and Clint Atkins Baseball Training Center will understand the excellence represented by the name on the building.

“The generous contribution by Susie as the lead gift to push forward the Susan and Clint Atkins Baseball Training Center will position Illinois Baseball with one of the premier indoor baseball training facilities in college baseball,” Hartleb said. “This facility will give us an around-the-clock training center that will allow our athletes to excel at the highest level. I am confident that this facility will help us to recruit many more top athletes and will help us to push forward with our goal of competing at the national level every year and to win a national championship.”

The Atkins Family and the Atkins Group have made real estate development an economic stimulus for the entire Central Illinois community. Susie and Clint Atkins had a vision of growth for Champaign-Urbana that created new industry in areas like North Prospect and Illinois Research Park, two projects that have brought innovation and jobs to the community.

“In the Champaign-Urbana community, the Atkins Family is synonymous with progress and vision,” Director of Athletics Josh Whitman said. “Nearly every advancement of business or industry over the last several decades has been the brainchild of Susie and her late husband, Clint. Illinois Athletics has been a proud partner on these endeavors in the past, and we are proud to renew our partnership with them in such a significant way. Susie is one of the kindest, warmest people I know, and working with her to honor her family’s legacy on this new baseball facility has been a joy. We are indebted to her and her entire family for their generosity and commitment to our program and our community. We are grateful to receive their stamp of approval on our vision for the future of Illinois Athletics.”

With this gift, the Illinois Office of Athletics Development has secured its third lead naming gift in the past 12 months, providing funding and support for Demirjian Park for track and soccer, the Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center and now the Susan and Clint Atkins Baseball Training Center.

“We are so very excited about Susie’s generous gift,” Senior Associate Athletics Director for Development Howard Milton said. “Susie and her late husband, Clint, both deeply appreciated the role Illini Athletics plays in our local community, and the impact it has on local business. Susie and the entire Atkins family are extremely generous and this gift reflects their enormous generosity.”

The gift counts toward in the $300 million fundraising goal for the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, which is part of “With Illinois,” the recently announced $2.25 billion University-wide fundraising campaign.

10 takes: Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska

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.

Fall Notes: Minnesota

Program at a glance

Head coach: John Anderson, 38th year

2018 record: 44-15, 18-4, conference and tournament champions

Key departures: 1B/3B Micah Coffey (.278 AVG/.363 OBP/.409 SLG, 18 XBH, DH/OF Toby Hanson (.318/.398/.486, 18 2B), RHP Reggie Meyer 109 IP, 2.97 ERA, 8-4, 70 SO, 16 BB), 2B Luke Pettersen (.322/.406/.397, 13 2B, 13 SB), RHP Jackson Rose (31.2 IP, 1.99 ERA, 5-1, 30 SO), SS Terrin Vavra (.386/.455/.614, 13 2B, 4 3B, 10 HR, 59 RBI)

Key returners:  Soph. RHP Patrick Fredrickson (97 IP, 1.86 ERA, 9-0, 73 SO, .209 BAA), Jr. INF Jordan Kozicky (.271/.373/.422, 13 2B, 5 HR), Sr. C/1B Cole McDevitt (.271/.395/.452, 9 2B, 9 HR), Soph. RHP/OF Max Meyer (43.2 IP, 2.06 ERA, 16 SV, 54 SO, .163 BAA), Sr. OF Ben Mezzenga (.383/.466/.447, 12 SB), Jr. C Eli Wilson (.289/.379/.428, 9 2B, 5 HR)

Notable newcomers: Fr. INF Zack Raabe, Fr. C Chase Stanke, Fr. INF Andrew Wilhite

2018 in review

Minnesota’s 2018 season is among the top three seasons in the Big Ten over the last decade, perhaps even of this millennium. An 18-4 conference mark gave the Gophers their second Big Ten championship in three years, the program’s 11th under head coach John Anderson, before sweeping the field in the Big Ten Tournament to capture the program’s Big Ten-leading 10th tournament title.

The championship in Omaha helped Minnesota earn the right to host a regional for the first time in 17 years. Continuing their stellar play, the Gophers turned away all comers in the Minneapolis Regional, to advance to super regional play for the first time in school history. A return trip to Omaha fell two wins shy, as eventual national champion Oregon State won both games to win the Corvallis Super Regional to advance to the College World Series.

Finishing one step short of college baseball’s final destination, when the dust settled on Minnesota’s run, a retrospect shows a combination of steady seniors, a standout junior, and wunderkind freshmen help make up a deep Gopher roster.

After missing the Big Ten Tournament in 2015, played at nearby Target Field, a group of freshmen would go on and change the trajectory of the program, and end up just one 2017 conference win shy of closing their career with three consecutive Big Ten championships. Outfielder Alex Boxwell, third baseman Micah Coffey,  first baseman/DH Toby Hanson, and second baseman Luke Pettersen helped establish a championship culture in the Gopher locker room. The quartet were steady performers and lineup stalwarts since the 2016 season, and saw Terrin Vavra put together an All-American seasons to provide the team with a star at the plate. The best two-way position player in the Big Ten, Vavra provided a sensational glove at baseball’s premier defensive position, while leading the Gophers with a .386, and collecting a team best 27 extra-base hits, to drive in 59 runs.

With upperclassmen leading the way at the plate, a pair of freshmen captured the attention of all of college baseball in spearheading Minnesota’s pitching staff. 

Becoming the first freshman to be named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Patrick Fredrickson’s emergence as a viable starter coincided with the Gophers taking off and never looking back. Earning his first start during Minnesota’s series at TCU, Fredrickson would go on to start 14 more contests, before finishing the year with a spotless 9-0 record. Minnesota entered the series at TCU with a 12-7 record, before going 25-6 to close the regular season. Keying that success was Fredrickson solidifying the Saturday role in the rotation, behind junior right-hander Reggie Meyer, who provided Minnesota what they needed as the rotation’s ace, pitching 109 innings to a 2.97 ERA, to give pitching coach Ty McDevitt a potent 1-2 punch.

At the back of Minnesota’s bullpen, right-hander Max Meyer would be the team’s second freshman pitcher to make history. Meyer’s 16 saves tied a program record and helped him earn All-America honors alongside Fredrickson and Vavra. And like Reggie Meyer was instrument in putting Fredrickson in position to win a weekend series, senior setup man Jackson Rose played a significant role in getting the ball to Max Meyer with a lead in, allowing just eight earned runs in 31.2 innings.

Meyer was also a part of a noteworthy offseason for the Gophers. The freshman, blessed with a 95-MPH fastball and a devastating slider, was picked to play on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Meyer led a team made up of some of the nation’s best pitchers in strikeouts and saves.

But the most significant offseason news was the retirement of longtime assistant coach Rob Fornasiere. For 33 years Fornasiere was on Anderson’s staff, serving as assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator and third base coach, as he and Anderson former the country’s longest tenured coaching duo. Three championships during a 44-15 season was a fitting way for Fornasiere to go out.

Fall notes

Even if Minnesota wasn’t coming off of its best season in a generation, the fall was going to be a little different without Fornasiere. In fact, Anderson said it was a very different fall without his long-time assistant. No longer was there the ability to anticipate the thoughts and decisions from his top assistant, that the long-standing system and ways of doing things would be shaken. But as Ty McDevitt moved into a full-time role after serving as the team’s pitching coach from the volunteer position, Minnesota hired Brandon Hunt to the latter role, as good of a fit as any, said Anderson. The Gopher head coach spoke to Hunt, a former head coach at Division II Upper Iowa University, having a teacher’s mindset, like Fornasiere, and their specific areas of expertise are similar.

While there hasn’t been any championship hangover in Anderson’s eyes, just the continuation of players wanting to compete and perform at their best to live up to expectations, what was evident is the change that’s set to take place with the type of offense seen out of Minnesota this year. With last year’s offensive outfit a veteran group, one with a remarkable ability to have good at-bat after good at-bat, Anderson said the makeup of this year’s roster will likely have the team play with more action, opposed to letting the team 1-9 just sit back and hit, the way they did in leading the Big Ten with a .300 average, or utilize the bunt as often, Minnesota’s 51 sacrifice hits also led the Big Ten.

“A point of emphasis was to steal more bases, or attempt to, to be able to put more pressure on opposing pitchers,” Anderson said, adding throughout the fall players had the ability to run on there own, knowing it’ll be a big factor in the team’s success this year.

One player in particular the Minnesota staff worked extensively with on running was Max Meyer. A year ago, Meyer was viewed as a two-way player, and he did end up with 30 at-bats. But with a deep lineup and Meyer emerging on the mound the way he did, it wasn’t long that he became a pitcher-only for his freshman season. This year, after taking the fall off from pitching with his extended work load over the summer with USA Baseball, Meyer saw extensive action in the outfield and at the plate. Anderson says Meyer showed very well this fall at the plate, possessing the ability to definitely help the team offensively. Although he was a shortstop in high school, with how valuable his arm is, Meyer will be deployed to the outfield, likely left field, when not DHing, if he is in the batting order. And, for his use on the mound, it’ll be a return to the back of the bullpen, no immediate plans to try him as a starter.

“It’s hard to find someone that can do what he does at the end of the game,” Anderson said of Meyer, as they prepare him to be the team’s closer again. “We like the ability of having him impact potentially two games in a weekend opposed to one.”

On continuing their established roles, Anderson and staff are also leaning to keeping Fredrickson in his Saturday role. Not that the sophomore isn’t capable of becoming the weekend’s leading man, but Minnesota has an abundance of riches on the mound, and if it’s not broken why try to fix it?

Fredrickson and Meyer are a part of a pitching-heavy sophomore class that saw four other freshman, Joshua Culliver, Ryan Duffy, Bubba Horton and Sam Thoresen combine to pitch 83 innings. Culliver made four starts, en route to posting a 3.38 ERA in 26.2 innings, and looks to be an option to fill out the rotation with Fredrickson, engaged in a good competition with Horton, senior left-handed pitcher Nick Lackney, senior right-hander Jake Stevenson and Thoresen.

Any odd men out of the rotation will help make a deep bullpen.  Redshirt sophomore right-handed pitcher Nolan Burchill is working his way back from an elbow injury which shortened his 2017 season after 27.2 innings as mid-week starter. Minnesota has worked to shorten his throwing motion this fall. And another third-year player, Brett Schulze, is back after excelling in a long-relief role last year, going 9-0 with a 2.09 ERA, pitching 51.2 innings in 22 relief appearances.

Where a lot of known commodities will take the mound, there will be less established players stepping into the batter’s boxes, as Minnesota needs to replace three infielders, an outfielder and DH. But there are more at-bats returning than one may think.

Outfielder Ben Mezzenga is the top returning Big Ten hitter, after batting .383 last year. Junior Jordan Kozicky is capable of playing in the outfield, along with second, shortstop and third base. Senior first baseman Cole McDevitt returns, as does junior catcher Eli Wilson, who is shaping into a good draft prospect with a solid all-around game. Outfielder Riley Smith is also back. The quintet totaled 830 at-bats a year ago.

One player to keep an eye to fill a void is senior Eduardo Estrada. The outfielder has shown flashes in the past, most notably his go-ahead grand slam against Indiana in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, but yet to put it all together. Anderson said he saw a different player in Estrada this fall, a player who realizes this is his last go, more mature.

And as far as newcomers go, Andrew Wilhite opened the eyes of Anderson and others this fall, leading another impressive crop of freshmen, this time position player-heavy. Wilhite is an exceptional athlete with good bat speed, and an approach and readiness at the plate that’s more advanced than typical for a freshman. Wilhite has the ability to play in the outfield, at second or third base, giving Minnesota a player with versatility that helps maintain lineup flexibility which has been a staple of the Gophers over the last three seasons. Freshman catcher Chase Stanke showed a good arm and receiving skills, ready to provide depth behind Wilson. Up the middle, Zack Raabe, son of former Gopher All-American Brian Raabe, doesn’t wow you with tools, but just find ways to make plays and does what’s necessary to win games, Anderson said.

The trio of talented freshman, along with star sophomore arms and the returning veterans ready to take on a bigger role, will be tested early and often this year. The Gophers have weekend series at Dallas Baptist, N.C State and Long Beach, host Oklahoma and participate in two tough neutral site tournaments, where they will see Oregon State in both.

“If you want a strong program, to play at a championship level, you have to get out and get after it,” Anderson said of the tough schedule awaiting the Gophers. “We’re not going to dodge anybody.”

Fall Notes: Iowa

Program at a glance

Head coach: Rick Heller, sixth year

2018 record: 33-20 overall, 13-9 Big Ten (sixth)

Key departures: LHP Nick Allgeyer (97 IP, 2.41 ERA, 95 SO, .235 BAA), C Tyler Cropley (.342 AVG/.449 OBP, .578 SLG, 20 2B, 9 HR), RHP Zach Daniels (45.2, 2.56, 49, .200), OF Robert Neustrom (.311/.386/.538, 15 2B, 11 HR)

Key returners: Sr. 2B Mitchell Boe (.266/.352/.351, 10 2B), Jr. SS Lorenzo Elion (.275/.303/.352), SO. LHP Jack Dreyer (31.2 IP, 3.69, 42 SO, .224 BAA), Sr. RHP Cole McDonald (55.2, 3.23, 52, .249, Sr. OF Chris Whelan (.308/.403/.410)

Notable newcomers: INF Izaya Fullard, C Austin Martin, OF Connor McCaffery, 

2018 in review

Sometimes the numbers just don’t add up as they should. If selection into the NCAA Tournament rested solely on the eye-test, it’s hard to argue Iowa didn’t deserve an appearance in a third regional in four years. Over ther 53 games, the Hawkeyes captured weekend series against Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, splitting an abbreviated two-game set against Indiana. The Buckeyes, Cowboys and Hoosier were each among the 64 participating in a regional, with both the Illini and Wolverines were ranked prior to taking on Iowa.

But the end-of-season RPI calculations weren’t in Iowa’s favor, with a final ranking of 77, and thus leaving Iowa at home the first weekend of June.

That a 33-20 campaign could qualify as a disappointing season speaks to the change that has taken place in Iowa City under Rick Heller. While it’s going on 45 years since the Hawkeyes last won the Big Ten, the 2018 season, Iowa has recorded a winning since in each of the last four Big Ten slates, a feat accomplished only once in the six years preceding Heller’s arrival. Key to Iowa’s sustaining a level of success last seen in the 1970s is the ability to replace key players year over year.

Last year’s middle-of-the-order duo of Tyler Cropley and Robert Neustrom stepped into the roles of offensive leaders after the departures of lineup anchors Jake Adams and Mason McCoy. The later tandem helped fill voids created in the departure of Joel Booker and Nick Roscetti, just as they emerged after Jake Mangler and Eric Toole graduated from the program.

However, a key difference in Iowa’s 2018 outfit compared to years past was the players surrounding their standout bats. An elbow injury limited outfielder Chris Whelan, the 2017 Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, to just 38 games. He joined Cropley and Neustrom as the only Hawkeyes with a .300 or batter average.

But where the lineup depth may not have been there, Iowa’s offensive was complimented by a strong pitching staff. On the mound, the Iowa pitching staff continued to put together another quietly effective season. With a 4.07 team ERA, the Hawkeyes owned the Big Ten’s fifth-best pitching unit, leading the conference with 499 strikeouts. Leading the men on the mound, All-Big Ten first-team selection Nick Allgeyer provided the Hawkeyes with a true ace, finishing fourth in the Big Ten in ERA and innings pitched, second in strikeouts. Cole McDonald gave Heller a quality second starter. And d converted infielder Zach Daniels closed his career in Iowa City with a banner season at the back of the bullpen, holding opponents to 13 earned runs in 45.2 relief innings, striking out more than a batter per inning.

All in all, Iowa was a solid team in 2018, a team capable of repeatedly beating very good teams, but a slight scuffle in mid-March and just one run over 19 innings in the Big Ten Tournament kept the math of the RPI from working in their favor.

Fall notes

With no player outside of Cropley, Neustrom and Whelan batting above .275, there isn’t an obvious player that jumps out to stand alongside Whelan as the primary offensive threats of the Hawkeyes. That believes jives with what Heller saw from this club this fall.

“There’s not one marquee guy to hand your hate on like years past,” the sixth-year head coach said. “But top to bottom we’re more balanced.”

There were ample opportunities for players to step into bigger or leading roles this fall. While Cropley and Neustrom were concluding their first professional seasons, Whelan was sidelined with a broken shoulder blade, suffered in the final game of the Prospect League’s summer season. The program also parted ways with returning senior shortstop Kyle Crowl. 

The absence of key contributors and multiple vacancies to fill created a competitive environment, where the culture that has been established over the last years fostered a more completeness of a team, each player doing their part to create a greater whole.

“New guys got reps and everyone bought in,” Heller said, adding there may not be one player that reaches double digits in home runs, but saw six or seven players capable of hitting five or so. The Hawkeyes repeatedly working on hit-and-run and first-to-third situations this fall, hoping to give an offensive absent a big bat like Adams, an offense that will be more doubles and on-base oriented, capable of putting pressure on the opposing staff 1-9.

But there is one wild card that may change Iowa’s ability to have a true thumper: outfielder Connor McCaffery. A two-sport athlete at Iowa, also on the Hawkeyes basketball team that his father coaches, McCaffery is a redshirt freshman who did not play last year after an ankle injury, mononucleosis, severe strep throat and a late-December tonsillectomy all struck the outfielder. This fall,  the 6’6, 205-pound McCaffery showed the ability to hit the ball with authority and a good bit of speed. Heller said if the season were to start today, McCaffery would be the team’s three-hole hitter. It’s to be determined when the baseball Hawkeyes will get to use McCaffery this spring with the overlap of his two seasons.

Heller mentioned Izaya Fullard and Austin Martin as two players capable of being the next two in a long line of transfers who have immediate impacts. Fullard, a transfer from Kirkwood Community College, lead the country in hitting with a .470 average from the Division II JUCO. Martin will look to fill the void behind the plate with Fullard joining Mitchel Boe and Lorenzo Elion as returning infielders to be key contributors around the horn.

On the mound, McDonald is a guy that Heller says he and his staff are comfortable slotting into the Friday role. Health will be key to McDonald, last year’s workload of 55.2 innings is the most innings he’s pitched in three years at Iowa, battling arm injuries off and on. Behind him, Jack Dreyer and Grant Judkins, a pair of solid key relievers look to fill out the rotation with sophomore Cam Baumann another hurler in the mix. Where Heller believes the starting pitching and its depth will be a key strength, the back of the bullpen is an unknown.

For the first time in his Iowa tenure, there isn’t an established closer at the back of the bullpen. Although Daniels recorded just five saves last year, he was a steady arm that could go multiple innings to close a game, evident by his 6-2 record. Nick Nelsen recorded three saves and carried a 3.60 ERA, but he graduated from the program.

While there may not be a player ready to jump into the closer’s role at the start of November, as players move into the individual and group practice part of the offseason, the track record of player development has Heller confident the team will be where they need to. The Hawkeyes will be tested early in 2019, with their return trip to Stillwater, to complete the home-and-home series with Oklahoma State, kicking off March.

“Here at Iowa, player development is key to success,” Heller said. “We believe every player will reach their potential with buy-in and attitude.”

Those elements where there this fall according to Heller, capping the type of offseason needed to have everything fall in place for another regional run.

Fall Notes: Nebraska

Program at a glance

Head Coach: Darin Erstad, eighth year

2018 Record: 24-28 overall, 8-14 Big Ten (10th)

Key departures: 1B/DH Scott Schreiber (.369 AVG/.446 OBP/.692 SLG, 18 HR), C Jesse Wilkening (.372/.445/.588, 56 RBI), RHP Luis Alvarado (70 IP, 4.89 ERA, 65 SO) RHP Jake Hohensee (25.2 IP, 1.05 ERA, 28 SO, 13 SV)

Key returners: Sr. SS Angelo Altavilla (.228/.354/.352), Jr. OF Mojo Hagge (.275/.369/.376), Jr. RHP Chad Luensmann (DNP, Tommy John), Jr. RHP Robbie Palkert (4.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 1 SV), Jr. 3B/1B/C Luke Roskam (.269/.373/.425, 13 2B), Sr. RHP Matt Waldron (69.2 IP, 4.26 ERA, 61 SO, 12)

Notable newcomers: Fr. RHP Bo Blessie, Fr. INF/RHP Colby Gomes, Soph. OF Aaron Planesky, Fr. RHP/INF Spencer Schwellenbach

2018 in review

No matter the adjective, unlucky, unbelievable, crestfallen, or downright weird, it’s hard to find the appropriate word to describe the Huskers’ 2018 campaign. Coming off of the program’s first Big Ten championship, the first conference team title a Nebraska men’s program has won as a member of the Big Ten, 2018 was to be the season Nebraska took the next step forward. Although the 2017 season ended with a third regional in four years, the program is only 1-6 over the trio of 64-team tournaments, including back-to-back 0-2 showings. With one monkey off of the back, it was time to eviscerate another.

That monkey postseason unfortunately still is there, as a black cloud seemingly formed over Lincoln and never left.

Before the season started, junior right-handed pitcher Chad Luensmann was lost for the season, needing Tommy John surgery.  That created a void in the Huskers’ weekend rotation as the third-year player was expected to move from standout reliever to starter. Luensmann was lost for the year after sophomore southpaw Connor Curry also needed offseason surgery. Junior righty Robbie Palkert joined the mash unit, going under the knife after showing flashes of brilliance, limited to 4.2 innings. And Junior left-hander Jake McSteen encountered arm trouble as well, limited to two starts and 12.2 innings over five outings.

With pitchers recovering from injuries, a handful being lost to injury, and continuous shuffling of roles, Nebraska used 19 pitchers last season, eight receiving a start. The lack of consistency and players put in roles out of necessity, less merit, resulted in a team ERA of 5.70, the second-worst mark in the conference.

Led by senior first baseman Scott Schreiber and junior catcher Jesse Wilkening, Nebraska’s offence batted at a .274 clip, sixth in the conference. But after the two all-conference performances who combined for 27 doubles and home runs, no other Husker regular batted over .275, and only two reach double digits in extra-base hits. While Wilkening made a big leap forward following a sophomore campaign of .247/.330/.312, shortstop Angelo Altavilla took a step back in his draft year, going from .316/.407/.406 for the Big Ten champions to .228/.354/.352 for the conference’s 10th-place club. Sophomores Mojo Hagge and Luke Roskam showed they can be solid players, complimentary of Nebraska’s two big bats, but there wasn’t the lineup depth of years past, where 1-9 Nebraska wore down opposing pitchers.

But Nebraska still managed to score 6.48 runs per game. The bug-a-boo for the Huskers was the ravaged pitching staff. Nebraska lost five conference games where they scored at least four runs, as its in-conference ERA of 6.35 was the Big Ten’s worst. Offensively, the batted .288 and slugged .457 against conference foes, both makes good for second.

The 24-28 overall record, 8-14 Big Ten record and 10th place finish were the worst for an Erstad-led team. 

Fall notes

With the snake-bitten, disappointing year behind them, Erstad said every player returned to Lincoln motivated this fall. The eighth-year head coach added there was no need to speak of last year to his players, the players know their season wasn’t up to par, not even close. As such, compared to years past, Erstad says that a different feeling throughout the team was present this fall, noting it’s easy to coach a team who had their butt kicked.

Regarding the Curry, Luensmann and Palkert, Erstad said each are progressing fine in their recovery, no set backs have occurred and each are in line to return in 2019 at various points.

Even without the three pitchers on the mend, Erstad said the team he saw this fall has more depth than any team he’s had thus far in Lincoln. With the depth, and true to his M.O. nothing is in pen heading into the 2019 season, according to Erstad. It’ll be a battle for starts throughout the lineup and on the pitching staff. 

A key factor in the depth are the eleven freshman that make up the 2019 Nebraska roster. Right-handed pitchers Bo Blessie, Colby Gomes, and Spencer Schwellenbach drew praise and high attention during the prep and showcase circuit, each spurning the opportunity to play professional baseball. Gomes and Schwellenbach were also standout two-way players in high school, both possessing the bat and fielding prowess to make impacts all over the diamond. But, Erstad says the college game is a whole different ball game than what those and the other freshman have faced to date.

Another key newcomer is outfielder Aaron Palensky, who Erstad says is just a fun player to coach. A sophomore after spending one year at Southeast Community College, Palensky looks to be the part of a key bat in the Husker lineup, as they need a bat to emerge to fill the void of Schreiber and Wilkening. At the JUCO, last year Palensky batted .417 with 18 home runs, 77 RBIs, 72 runs scored, 24 stolen bases, while posting a .850 slugging percentage and .515 on-base percentage.

But for all of the accolades, the positive energy and determination present throughout the fall, Erstad knows none of it matters if the players don’t show up game after game.

And in 2019 the Huskers will need to be ready to bring it from day one. Nebraska’s schedule is as tough as it’s ever been, with Erstad saying, “We want to challenge our guys…we want to find out how good we are, and we will know right away.” Following a four-game series at UC Riverside to open the season, a four-game series against defending national champion Oregon State awaits. Nebraska opens March plays in the Frisco College Baseball Classic, alongside Mississippi State, Sam Houston State and Texas Tech. Non-conference series against Baylor and Arizona State are also on the schedule.

You’ll have to go to the bottom of Nebraska’s roster to find his name, but Curtis Ledbetter transitioning from Director of Operations to volunteer coach has been a boon for Erstad. Like he is, Erstad says Ledbetter being a Husker alum, adds an extra element to the staff. The head coach notes his volunteer assistant was on Nebraska’s 2005 College World Series team, and knows what it takes to get there, determined to get the team, showing in turning away a paying job to be the volunteer coach.

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