Rohr of the Crowd is the official blog of Nate Rohr, the play-by-play announcer for Husker softball. Nate has called Nebraska softball games since 2004 and will call every game of the 2013 season. Nate is not employed by the University of Nebraska and the opinions and content of this blog are his own. Look for new blog entries weekly.
And So It Begins, Again...
Opening day. Beyond just the first game of the year, on the diamond, it means rebirth, renewal and starting over. It's a fresh start to the year, just as everything outside is coming alive again.
This is a year of rebirth, renewal and starting over for Husker Softball. Ashley Hagemann, who set the school record for career strikeouts with 988 while pitching 87 percent of the innings and recording 81 percent of the strikeouts for Nebraska the last two years, is gone. Nikki Haget, a three-year mainstay in centerfield and in the leadoff spot, is gone. Ashley Guile, a four-year starter in the heart of the order, is gone.
But a talented freshman class moves in. Hailey Decker, Emily Lockman and Alicia Armstrong were named the high school players of the year in their respective states last year. Kiki Stokes was named an All-American last year. It's a group that will have to step up early. Armstrong will likely start at shortstop, Decker will likely start second base and Stokes is the probable starter in centerfield on opening day. Dawna Tyson is in the mix at first base. If Tyson starts at first when Emily Lockman is pitching, as much as half of the Huskers starting lineup will be first-year players.
But we've seen freshmen make an impact, whether its nationally, in the Big Ten or even at Nebraska. Dallas Escobedo pitched Arizona State to a national championship two years ago as a freshman. UCLA's Stephany LaRosa hit a blistering .436 while slugging .807 in her first year with the Bruins last year. Lauren Chamberlain blasted an incredible 30 home runs while hitting .357 as a first-year Sooner. In the Big Ten, freshmen pitchers Sara Driesenga (.340 batting average, 9-10, 2.53 ERA, 23 games started) and Haylie Wagner (32-7, 1.53 ERA, 34 games started) drove Michigan to its fifth straight Big Ten championship. Two years ago, Minnesota's Sara Moulton dominated the Big Ten in her first year of college ball (28-16, 2.06, 330 strikeouts), and the Gophers got a great first year last year from shortstop Tyler Walker (.380 batting average, nine homers, 16 stolen bases).
And fresh in all of our minds was Taylor Edwards' All-America season for Nebraska two years ago, when she hit 18 home runs, drove in 67 runs, slugged .738 and batted .356.
In other words, freshmen can step onto the stage of college softball and make an immediate impact. It would be unfair to expect the 2013 Husker freshmen to have the same impact as Edwards or any of the others listed above, but history shows that freshmen can make a difference right away, and the talent this freshman class possesses means that it is equipped to make an impact from day one.
Despite losing two mainstays of the starting offensive lineup (and another two-year starter in left fielder Madison Drake), there's plenty back in the Nebraska lineup. Brooke Thomason has been a consistent performer for the Huskers in her three years. Tatum Edwards built off a solid freshman season, cutting her strikeouts at the plate by 18 while boosting her average by 16 points against a tougher schedule in her sophomore year. We've mentioned Taylor Edwards' brilliant freshman season performance, and Gabby Banda, Courtney Breault and Mattie Fowler are all solid contributing parts in the lineup.
Pitching is the big question for the 2013 Huskers. Hagemann got the bulk of the work in the circle the last two years, so what those behind her can do is a crucial unknown entering this season. Tatum Edwards has shown flashes of brilliance during her short career, but consistency has been an issue for her in her first two years at NU. If Edwards can stay in the strike zone, her stuff is good enough to be an ace for a successful team in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, Emily Lockman's pedigree is promising. Her 74-19 career record with an 0.89 ERA against the best high school competition strongly suggests she's ready to make the jump to college ball. Her superb 13-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in her career shows excellent control. But Lockman tends to pitch to contact, and freshmen that are successful tend to be those that strike out a lot of batters. Can Lockman's style translate effectively to college-level competition in her first year?
That's one of many questions that we'll answer over the next 56 (and hopefully more!) games. With such a young team, inconsistency may be a fact of life, especially in the early part of the season. But lows may be rapidly followed by highs. And young players have been and can be successful, if they figure it out in time. Whatever the journey might be, it all starts again on Friday.
Up and Down Schedule
Last year's non-conference schedule was tough throughout, constructed to hopefully build an NCAA Regional-hosting resume for Nebraska, with three ranked foes (Washington, Arizona and Georgia Tech) facing the Huskers in the first week, four more ranked teams (Oregon, Missouri, Texas and Washington) in the third week, and two more games against nationally-ranked Texas A&M the following week. This schedule may end up being similarly tough, but is a little more uneven in terms of the difficulty of the schedule from week-to-week.
Nebraska will face just one ranked team (No. 13 Arizona) in the first two weeks. But the Mary Nutter Classic (formerly the Cathedral City Classic) in week three is shaping up to be a gauntlet for the Huskers. Of the five teams Nebraska is slated to play in Southern California, three qualified for the WCWS last year (Oklahoma, Cal and Oregon) and Florida State is ranked 25th entering this season. NU gets two more cracks at the Sooners the following weekend and will also tussle with an Oklahoma State team that is just two years removed from the WCWS and that no-hit the Huskers last year in Stillwater.
In other words, we may not know right away where Nebraska will stack up with the nation's best teams, but by the end of the first month of the season, we'll have a great idea of where the Huskers are, and where they need to go.
Skipping way ahead on the schedule, keep the week of April 22 clear of any social plans. Nebraska hosts Creighton on Wednesday, April 24. Then two days later, Nebraska will host a three-game series against Michigan, the lone ranked Big Ten team in the preseason poll. That weekend, the Huskers will try to again set the world record for largest softball tailgate. We'll have more details closer to the event. To boot, those could be huge games in determining the Big Ten race. The Wolverines have won the last five and 15 of the last 20 Big Ten Championships, and with both pitchers and six of nine hitters back offensively, it's safe to say they'll be in the thick of the race again this year.
Then, two weeks later, Bowlin Stadium hosts a conference tournament for the first time in its 12-year history, as the Big Ten Tournament comes to Lincoln. Postseason softball at Bowlin is always an electric atmosphere, and it's been since 2007 that we've seen postseason softball at 400 Line Drive Circle. Of course, there will be a regional bid on the line as well.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
I want to congratulate three guys who are, in different ways, responsible for me having the opportunity to broadcast Husker Softball, for a couple of milestone acheivements.
The first two, Matt Coatney and Jeff Griesch, celebrated their 400th broadcast of Nebraska women's basketball together on the Husker Sports Network last Sunday. Without both of them, I would not be in a position to call Husker Softball.
Griesch recommended me to be hired to the Nebraska Sports Information Department as a college freshman in the fall of 2003. Simply put, he snuck me in the front door of Husker Athletics. Without his recommedation for that first job, I wouldn't have been in a position to serve as the softball public address announcer in the spring of 2004, and I certainly wouldn't have been in a place to do the radio broadcasts for the 2004 Big 12 Tournament. I cannot imagine where my career would be without his help, early and often. So many great things has happened, just because he showed that early faith in me.
Coatney has been a broadcasting mentor since I was in high school, when I was working at KWBE and running the board for the MUDECAS high school basketball tournament in Beatrice. Coatney would come down and assist KWBE Sports Director Bryan Cook in calling the tournament. He gave me my first shot on the air of a play-by-play broadcast as his color man while I was still in high school. Then, when I was in college, as I'd sit in the C-Section of the Devaney Center and call basketball into a tape recorder, Coatney would sit down and listen to the tapes, painstakingly slicing through the stammering to make sure I was using good verbs and giving the score often enough. Immediately after my first Husker Softball broadcast, a victory over Texas in 2004 Big 12 Tournament, Coatney called the press box at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium to tell me that I had sounded good. To this day, he'll text me if he happens upon one of my broadcasts, whether it's Husker Softball or a random high school game that I've picked up, and it makes me feel like a million bucks.
Matt and Jeff's broadcasts serve as something of a template for what I want to do on the air with the softball broadcasts. Along with a vivid picture of the game, they bring an encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport of women's basketball to every broadcast. At a school like Nebraska, which aspires to success on the national stage, that knowledge of the world of women's college basketball is critical to providing the full picture of what's going on with the Husker women's basketball program. So, congrats, gentlemen. Hopefully you have another 400 in you.
My third congratulations is to my broadcast colleague, Matt Smith, who starts his 10th season as softball media relations director on Friday. In every way he can, he tries to bring greater positive attention to the sport of college softball and to the athletes who play it. He tries to increase broadcast coverage, which he done successfully, from 10 to 12 games on the Pinnacle Sports Network in his first year to the entire schedule on Huskers.com the last four years. He helps the coaches by building various stat or information packs for them to sift through, helping them do their jobs better. And, because his game notes are the best in the country and the media guide is the best in the country, he makes my job immeasurably easier. Thanks for everything Matt, and congratulations on a decade with Husker Softball!
New and Improved
We've made some additions to our broadcasts for this season. The first is the beginning of a Pick to Click before each game. Essentially, Matt and I will select a player of the game before each game. The scoring system for determining which player performed the best that game is still in the works. We'll keep track of who makes the most right selections, and Matt will probably make fun of me as he inevitably surges ahead in the standings.
Because we're typically an internet-only broadcast and don't have advertising on our broadcasts, we have some extra time that other broadcasts don't have. This year, we're choosing to fill that time with audio features, including interviews with Husker players and coaches, and updates on what else is going on in the world of college softball.
We'll have more on methods of following the Huskers this year on Friday, but know that you'll be able to every game on Huskers.com, on your tablet or smartphone on the official Nebraska Athletics app, and in the stadium on an FM radio. The frequency will change from week-to-week, but simply check in with us in the booth or scan your FM dial at the stadium. At Bowlin Stadium, the frequency will always be 95.5 FM.
Follow @RohrOfTheCrowd on Twitter to not only grab the frequency for the in-stadium broadcast, but also additional notes about Husker Softball and the softball world as a whole. And you should already be following @HuskerSoftball, as Katie Brown will be tweeting inning recaps and other info about Husker Softball.
Weekend Warmup: The Hotel Encanto Classic
Nebraska heads to Las Cruces, N.M., for the fourth straight year. For the second time in four years, the Huskers open their season in the Land of Enchantment.
Nebraska opens its season against Illinois-Chicago from the Horizon League. UIC and NU will face off three times in New Mexico. The Flames' coaching staff has a strong Big Ten flavor, as head coach Michelle Venturella (an Indiana grad) is joined by former Iowa player Sami Baugh and former Northwestern player and two-time Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Eileen Canney-Linnehan. UIC finished 26-26, 12-9 in the Horizon League in 2012. The Flames tallied 4.5 runs per game last year, hitting a solid .293 as a team. Six of the top seven hitters for Illinois-Chicago return. Only two pitchers threw a pitch for the Flames last year. Devin Miller, a senior right-hander, returns (14-13, 3.79, 32 starts), but Ashley Hewett (11-13, 3.65, 19 starts), departs.
The Huskers face New Mexico State for the first of four times this season on Friday afternoon. The Aggies were 24-29 last year, 5-16 in the WAC. NMSU's offense was solid as always, tallying 4.7 runs per game and hitting .281 as a team. Only three of the top six hitters by batting average return, but Amber Olive, the Aggies' leading hitter at .374, is one of the returners. New Mexico State struggled in the circle, with a team ERA of 4.08. The three pitchers who saw significant time in the circle for the Aggies return, including Alex Newman, who saw the lion's share of the work (25 starts, 10-14, 4.22 ERA). Karysta Donisthorpe was 6-10 with a 3.73 ERA in 16 starts. NMSU was picked third in a preseason poll in the WAC, receiving one first place vote.
The Huskers close their stay in Las Cruces with a matchup against New Mexico on Sunday. The Lobos start the weekend in Tempe, Ariz., participating in the Kajikawa Classic. They'll take on Creighton in the season opener, and WCWS teams Arizona State and Oklahoma later in the weekend. New Mexico started red-hot in 2012, beating Oregon, Northwestern, Oregon State and Texas A&M, en route to a 17-2 start that saw the Lobos ranked for a few weeks. But New Mexico struggled to a 27-25 record for the season, just 2-10 in the Mountain West. The Lobos were tremendous on offense, scoring 6.7 runs per game while hitting .311 and slugging .568. New Mexico lost five starters from the lineup, including All-America catcher Jessica Garcia, who hit .448 with 24 homers and 68 RBI. Stefanie Carramusa is also gone from last year's roster, after hitting .366 with 23 homers and 49 RBI. All three pitchers are back for the Lobos, but the New Mexico staff pitched to a 5.46 team ERA after walking 195 batters while striking out 147 last year.
That's all for now...we'll talk to you Friday from Las Cruces!
Go Big Red!