In 2003, Nebraska exceeded nearly everyone’s expectations but its own in winning its second Big 12 regular-season crown and reaching NCAA postseason play for a fifth straight season after being picked fourth in the league by the Big 12 coaches in the preseason.
While the Huskers fell short of reaching the College World Series for a third straight year, the positives of a 47-18 mark outweighed the disappointing end of the season.
"What this program needs every year is to put ourselves in position with a chance to go to Omaha," Anderson said. "By winning a conference championship, by getting ourselves in a regional at home, we did that."
One of the biggest reasons for the Huskers’ success came from a senior class of Steve Hale, Matt Hopper, Jeff Leise, Jamie Rodrigue and Josh Birmingham who not only produced on the field, but provided leadership through the highs and lows.
"The seniors in this program have done so much for us,’’ Head Coach Mike Anderson said. "They have done nothing but act in a classy way with integrity and have played the game hard.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for this team -- their class, their integrity, their work habits and their intensity.’’
A three-time first-team All-Big 12 honoree, Hopper concluded his Husker career in spectacular fashion, batting .382 with 22 homers and 66 RBIs. The first baseman was a second-team All-American, was chosen by the league coaches as the Big 12 Player of the Year, and held numerous school records, including most homers, RBIs, hits and total bases.
While Hopper posted eye-popping numbers, his commitment to the team’s goals were the reason for his bouncing back from a difficult junior year and being chosen by Philadelphia in the 2003 Major League Baseball Draft.
"I really believe this: Matt Hopper was awarded that award because he put team first," Anderson said. "By putting team first, a lot of positive things happened for him individually."
Leise was the spark plug of the Husker offense, batting .325 with seven homers and 37 RBIs. The three-year starter stole a team-best 20 bases and was second with 58 runs scored. While Leise continued to post impressive numbers, his biggest accomplishments came in the classroom, as he was chosen as the CoSIDA Academic All-American of the Year and the Big 12 Sportsman of the Year.
Hale, who finished with the school record for most career appearances with 87, provided veteran stability in the bullpen, helping the Huskers to a school-record 17 saves.
Rodrigue, who missed significant time because of injuries, came up big when the Huskers needed it most, going a season-high 7.1 innings to send the Huskers to the regional title game and picking up his only win of 2003. Rodrigue, who finished his career on the school’s top-10 list for wins and innings pitched, walked off the field for the final time in the Huskers’ 9-5 win over SMS, receiving a spine-tingling standing ovation from the nearly 7,500 fans in attendance.
"My goal for today was just to go up there and compete as hard as I could," Rodrigue said. "If this was going to be my last day, just go up there and give it all that I had. I gave up five runs, but I know in my heart that I gave it all that I had. I’m proud of this team and of the players and coaches on this team. It was a great experience."
Rodrigue’s regional performance typified the spirit of the 2003 team, a squad where heroes would step up when the team needed them most. From Brandon Fusilier, who came off the bench to win two games with ninth-inning hits, to Mike Sillman, who emerged from relative anonymity to become the Huskers’ closer down the stretch. It was appropriate that Sillman would be on the mound, striking out pinch hitter Seth Fortenberry to clinch Nebraska’s outright Big 12 title on the final day of the season.
"That last pitch was everything I had in me ... as hard as I could possibly throw," Sillman said. "When I saw him swing and miss, it was just so much excitement. It was awesome sending out our seniors like that."
One bedrock of the Husker staff was the dominant 1-2 combination of juniors Aaron Marsden and Quinton Robertson. Marsden stepped into the role held by two-time All-American Shane Komine and didn’t miss a beat, going 8-3 with a 2.90 ERA and 113 strikeouts to become Big 12 Pitcher of the Year. A third-round draft pick by the Colorado Rockies and a second-team All-American, Marsden proved to be his best in the Huskers’ biggest games, going 7-0 in his two-year career against ranked teams, including three wins in 2003.
Robertson, a junior college transfer, stepped into the Huskers’ weekend rotation, going 10-2 with a 4.23 ERA to join Marsden as a first-team All-Big 12 honoree. The right-hander went 7-1 in his last 11 starts, including victories over Baylor and Eastern Michigan in the postseason.
While Marsden and Robertson anchored the rotation, other starters emerged after Brian Duensing suffered a season-ending elbow injury in March. Freshman Zach Kroenke and sophomore Phil Shirek combined for 11 wins, while another freshman, right-hander Tim Schoeninger, became a vital member of the Husker bullpen.
While the pitching staff came together, the offense was taking time to gel, as several newcomers adjusted to the Division I level. In the infield, sophomore Curtis Ledbetter and freshman third baseman Alex Gordon became major impact players for the Big Red in their first season of action.
Ledbetter, who split time at first base, left field and DH, took home All-Big 12 honors, batting .354 with 13 homers and 54 RBIs. He took little time to make a mark, belting two homers in his first game as a Husker, and enjoyed a Big 12-long 23-game hitting streak during the year. Ledbetter shined in the clutch, going 6-for-7 with three homers and 21 RBIs in bases-loaded situations.
Gordon proved to be the rarest of freshmen, a player who had the knack to shine in the biggest moments. The third baseman hit .319 with seven homers and 48 RBIs, earning Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-America honors and the Big 12 Freshman of the Year from the Waco Tribune. Gordon, who led NU in hitting with runners in scoring position and with two outs, either tied the game or gave the Huskers the lead with six of his seven round trippers.
The Huskers began the year on a roll, winning 11 of their 13 games, including wins over nationally ranked Notre Dame, Wake Forest and Texas A&M before facing their first taste of adversity. The Huskers stumbled to a four-game losing streak, dropping to 11-6 and 1-2 in conference play heading into a three-game series with Kansas State. The Wildcats proved to be the perfect tonic for the Huskers, as NU swept the Wildcats to begin an 11-game winning streak.
With a 23-8 record and having played 21 of 31 games on the road, Nebraska headed into an important homestand against No. 20 Missouri and No. 7 Texas. The Tigers opened the series with a 4-3 come-from-behind win, scoring three runs in the ninth inning. The following day, Missouri, which was riding a 13-game winning streak, was set to deliver the decisive blow to NU’s title chances, taking an 8-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh. Hopper then single-handedly carried the Huskers back, smashing a grand slam to put Nebraska within striking distance. Gordon’s round tripper sent the game into extra innings before Hopper, who drove in a career-high seven runs, hit a towering three-run shot for the game winner.
"I was so proud of the team," Hopper said, "No one was down and nobody hung their heads. You can question that anytime until you get into a situation like this, and you see what happens. That really showed the character of the team, you see what they are made of."
Anderson also was impressed with the resilience of his team.
"We tried to put last night’s loss behind us," Anderson said. "We came back, and we knew that if we didn’t win this game, we would lose the series. I’m happy with the team. They showed a lot of heart."
The next day, the Huskers needed some more late-inning heroics, scoring three runs in the bottom of the ninth - capped by Fusilier’s two-out double - to erase a two-run deficit and take the series with a 7-6 victory.
Against Texas, the Huskers opened the series with a dominating performance from Marsden, who tossed a complete-game six-hitter and matched his career high with 11 strikeouts in a 3-2 victory. The following day, Hopper again delivered in the clutch, breaking a 3-all tie with a three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh to give the Huskers a 6-4 victory and a fifth-straight season series win over the Longhorns.
The following weekend at Texas Tech, the Huskers would be tested again, as Marsden suffered his first loss in the opener before the Huskers rallied for wins in the final two games of the series. Robertson evened the series, allowing one unearned run in seven innings of work. In the finale, the Huskers used the long ball, crushing four homers, including blasts by Joe Simokaitis and Matt Wells to win 8-4,
With six conference games remaining, the Huskers trailed league leader Texas by 1.5 games, setting the stage for a dramatic finish. Against Oklahoma State, inclement weather forced the Huskers and Cowboys into a doubleheader at Hawks Field. In the opener, NU trailed 7-6 and was down to its last out before a single and walk put runners on first and second. Fusilier stepped to the plate and delivered his second walk-off winner of the year, a two-run triple to give Nebraska an 8-7 win. In the nightcap, the Huskers rode the arm of Robertson, who tossed a complete game in a 5-2 win. Nebraska capped the sweep the following day, as Shirek tossed seven innings of four-hit ball in a 9-1 win, giving the Huskers the series sweep and pulling even with the Longhorns atop the Big 12 standings with one weekend remaining.
With the Big 12 title on the line, the Huskers welcomed No. 14 Baylor into Hawks Field, A record series crowd of 18,358 witnessed a series staked in drama. The two teams split the first two games, setting up a dramatic regular-season finale. Texas had also split its first two games with Texas A&M, giving the Huskers, Longhorns and Aggies a potential claim on the league title. As Texas A&M defeated Texas, the Huskers claimed a share of the title, but a win would give Nebraska the outright title. The game was a microcosm of the entire season. Nebraska overcame four deficits and tied the score at six before Gordon drew a bases-loaded walk for the final run, as NU scored its final three runs without a hit. The Bears put two runners on in the ninth, but Sillman slammed the door on the Bears’ rally, picking up his first win and giving the Huskers their second league title in three seasons.
It was back and forth the whole game," Anderson said. "It kept everyone on their toes. We would have liked to obviously get ahead earlier in the game, but things went our way at the end."