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‘Homegrown’ Leaders Follow in Footprints of Joba Chamberlain and Alex Gordon 

Joba Chamberlain and Alex Gordon were great leaders who left their footprints in Lincoln. “Homegrown” players from Lincoln Southeast and Lincoln Northeast, the two took the Nebraska baseball program where it had never been before – into the winner’s circle at the College World Series.

Now that the flame-throwing, pin-striped Yankee Chamberlain and Kansas City’s smooth-swinging Gordon are making names for themselves in the American League, Nebraska Head Baseball Coach Mike Anderson said a couple of current Husker pitchers are benefiting from their giant-sized footprints.

Johnny Dorn and Thad Weber, the Nos. 1 and 2 pitchers in the Huskers’ starting rotation, are homegrown talents, too, and Anderson thinks there’s a certain link between the two Nebraska legends competing at baseball’s highest levels and the two right-handed aces on this year’s highly ranked team.

The link is leadership, and Anderson is counting on that factoring significantly into fifth-ranked Nebraska’s Big 12 Conference showdown series against No. 9 Texas A&M this weekend in Lincoln.

Dorn, from Grand Island, and Weber, from Friend via Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, are two of six team leaders who are, Anderson said, “getting opportunities because Alex and Joba help create them.” Because of the incredible work ethic of that pair, baseball scouts now put the same kind of premium on individual growth in Nebraska’s baseball program that pro football scouts have placed in the Huskers’ football program for decades.

“Alex and Joba were two undrafted Lincoln kids who came in here and put tremendous effort into this program,” Anderson said. “They did it whole-heartedly and said: ‘Hey, we’re going to make this program better.’ And they did. They worked very, very hard. They improved from a professional standpoint, and they left their mark.”

Dorn and Weber aren’t the only benefactors. Anderson, whose team quit electing captains four years ago so he could get more distributed leadership throughout the team, has seen two other senior leaders emerge this season – infielder Jake Opitz and outfielder Bryce Nimmo.

When Leadership Comes Together, It Creates Chemistry

The right mixture of leadership and personalities can create the right chemistry.  “It’s unbelievable how true that is, but your best players have to be your hardest workers for that to happen,” Anderson said. “If your leaders aren’t working harder than everybody else, then they can’t lead. That’s what’s happening with this year’s group of players. Our best leaders are also our hardest workers.”

Interestingly, of Nebraska’s six definitive team leaders, not one was considered an upper-round draft prospect when he was recruited. “I don’t think any of these guys have illusions of being a first-round draft pick,” Anderson said. “But they do want to play professional baseball. And they know if they want that chance, they have to work their way into it. The great thing is, they all have a solid family foundation, and they all have developed great work habits. That’s why I kept telling everyone before the season that the No. 1 aspect of this team is togetherness. We’re not the most talented team in the conference, but we do play extremely well together.”

Anderson believes there are all kinds of opportunities to lead. “Leadership can be a running group, a pitching group, a defensive group, an infield group or an academic group,” he said. “Nick Sullivan is a prime example. He’s a junior, but he’s our academic leader. He leads us in that area. You don’t just say ‘Okay, you’re a leader.’ You have to develop. Different players can be different leaders in different ways.”

Dorn exemplifies leadership by example. Weber “keeps us loose with his great sense of humor,” Anderson said. “Opitz is probably our best position leader by far. Nimmo is our character leader, Sullivan our academic and community service leader and (sophomore) DJ Belfonte is leading our younger group.”

While four seniors, a junior and a sophomore have assumed Nebraska’s primary leadership roles, Anderson is equally appreciative of the steady performance from senior catcher Mitch Albeita and the determination of two injured senior infielders – Craig Corriston and Jeff Tezak.

Here’s a breakdown of Anderson’s observations on primary team leadership categories:

Johnny Dorn

 “He is your classic 100 percent leadership by example – a Barrett Ruud type of leader. His work habits are better than anybody we’ve had in this program in years. He doesn’t say two words. He expects you to follow, and he’ll ask you to follow by his example. What I mean by that are his work habits, his composure and his loyalty to this program. He is fiercely competitive about Nebraska. And if you don’t follow suit, he may just say two words to you. That’s not okay. But that’s it. That’s the way he leads.”

Thad Weber

 “He keeps us loose. He has such a great sense of humor. Like Johnny, he’s very fiercely loyal to Nebraska. He’s wanted to do this all his life. So much so that he turned down opportunities in professional baseball to come back. He said this to me. ‘There’s unfinished business here from last year.’ And he wants to finish it. He wants to coach. He wants to teach. He wants to get it done. This is a great opportunity for him that he didn’t want to pass up.

“He has what I call baseball sarcasm. He and Johnny are always together. Johnny doesn’t say two words, but Thad does. If he wants to get something across, he doesn’t have to be demanding in saying it. In fact, he’ll say it very lightly, but he gets his point across. Those two counterbalance each other. Johnny’s a straight man, and Thad is a little goofy. That’s just the way they are.”

Jake Opitz

 “Jake is the leader within our infield, no question. He’s done that for the last two or three years. Again, it’s the result of taking different avenues with different opportunities. Jake’s biggest attribute is that he plays with a passion, and he plays with a freedom. He’s not concerned about failing. He says it. He talks it. He plays it. It is just lights out.

“He expects everybody to do that, so when there’s tension, he’s the first one to say: ‘Hey, let it go.’ I used to ask our infielders, ‘Who wants the ball?’ By the time I was saying ‘Who’, he was saying ‘I want it!’ And he’s trying to teach other young guys to be the same way. He’s been a great teacher for Ben Kline and our pitching staff this year. He plays the game more like I want than anybody else on this team. He’s very passionate, and he understands what I’m asking. Sometimes, he’ll say things before I say them.

“Jake made a very conscious commitment during the off-season in the weight room. He changed everything, including his eating habits. He said, ‘I want to be better.’ The way that comes across is he’s unwilling to lose. He’s that guy who puts his foot down and says: ‘We’re not going to lose in this situation.’ Johnny Dorn and Bryce Nimmo are his roommates. They absolutely refuse to let him go any other direction than where he’s going right now.”

Bryce Nimmo

 “He’s our character leader. Everybody knows he’s going to get great grades (in Finance). He’s first-team Academic All-Big 12. He’s going to study all the time. He’s going to do things right. He’s been very consistent with everything he does on and off and field. One thing that’s very characteristic with all these kids is family. They all have very strong families, and Bryce is obviously in that category.

“He has stepped up because we put him in that leadoff spot. We changed roles with him a little bit. Like Johnny, he’s not outspoken, but he is a take-charge guy. He’s our outfield leader. He’s the guy who will get things done out there and say, ‘This is how we do it at Nebraska.’”

Nick Sullivan

 “Nick is our leader in the academic and community service areas. As a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, he sets things up I don’t even know about, but they’re great. I finished up a practice and asked if anyone had anything to add. Nick stepped up and said, ‘Oh yeah, we need to get food for kids’ backpacks taken care of.’ He’d already set up a community service project just for the team. He was in charge of it. I looked at him, and he says, ‘Yeah I’ll talk to you about it.’ It was already done. It’s something he’s done all year long. That’s why he’s in charge of our Life Skills and why he’s our student-athlete representative. He’s on top of it all the time.

“Community service projects have always been extremely important to this team. When I was at Northern Colorado I was involved with the hearing-impaired program as a student-athlete. I then taught at that school with those hearing-impaired kids and used baseball players to help with several projects. Coach Osborne and I have talked about getting our student-athletes to be mentors. We believe the best community service involves interaction for those kids, and for our kids. Once they start developing relationships, they’re hooked on giving. It’s important, and it’s fun.”

DJ Belfonte

 “He was vital for us last year when he was a freshman, and we had some ups and downs. Halfway through the season I asked him to lead. What he was doing on and off the field was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want him to be shy. And he’s not. He’ll step up and speak his mind. He’s going to be an incredible leader in the future. Right now he’s leading our younger group. He’s a good student. He devotes himself to community service. He’s well respected because he demands it, and he earns it.”

The First Person You Have to Lead Is Yourself

According to Anderson, there is a maturing process that must take place in college. “The first person you have to learn how to lead is yourself,” he said. “You have to learn through your own character and through your own actions and behaviors. That’s a very tough challenge at times, especially in a world where there are so many temptations at such a young age.

“We want to go a step farther than learning to lead yourself. We want to be able to lead others. Whether it’s leading in a group of two, three or a whole team, we think that’s a great part of the maturational process. We think there’s an avenue to be a leader in every aspect of our program. If you’re in a group of four lifting weights, can you lead that group? It is a challenge, and it’s an even greater challenge because you have to work at it.”

At the beginning of the year, ownership levels are set. “The ownership level for a coach at the beginning of the year is very high,” Anderson said. “Hopefully, as the season goes on, a transition takes place. The players trade places with the coaches in terms of ownership. The student-athlete has to come to a higher level. Your first year here, you may not have as much ownership in the leadership process. But as you continue in your second, third or fourth years, you need to grow into a leadership role. It’s a big part of everything we try to do, and it’s certainly a big part of the success we’re having this season. Leadership has helped us exceed everyone’s expectations.”

Everyone that is, except for the team’s head coach.

“I’ve been here 14 years, and we’ve only struggled one of those years, and that was last year,” Anderson pointed out. “We struggled with some behavioral things. The kids were great. They just made some bad decisions. They worked extremely hard in the off-season, so they could come into this season and put an exclamation point on who they are and what they stand for. It created a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, but it was okay with me. I knew what it was.”

It was leadership – passed on down to the Huskers from two of the best young prospects in Major League Baseball.

Respond to Randy

"I follow the the progress of the Husker baseball team from Morris, Minn. (originally from Columbus, Neb.).  I am gratified to discover how such a high value 'leadership development' is in our athletic program.  This helps a bit to justify the costs required to carry on a first-class national program.  I hope all our fans will begin to realize that University of Nebraska athletics is a place where leaders are developed and not just where wins are manufactured.  Both go hand-in-hand. Thank you to the staff and coaches for emphasizing character, mentoring and what we can give to others in community service. No doubt, this is where Nebraska is distinctive among so many other universities, due to leadership of Coach (Tom) Osborne, Coach (John) Cook Coach Anderson, and the other fine coaches of course. (Our) young (student-athletes) are privileged to be in a position of having such a positive influence on others." Marlin Mohrman, Morris, Minn.