2002 College World Series
The 2002 Nebraska baseball team etched a permanent place in the hearts of Husker baseball fans. From the school-record totals of Jed Morris and Jeff Leise to the pitching masterpieces of Shane Komine and Aaron Marsden, individual excellence can only tell part of the story.
For two months, the Huskers were searching for an identity, trying to live up to high expectations following a Big 12 title and the school’s first College World Series appearance a year earlier. In mid-April, NU was not only setting 23-13 after dropping a series at Missouri, but was also short-handed, as Komine and All-American first baseman Matt Hopper were both sidelined with injuries.
With postseason hopes starting to dwindle, the Huskers needed a spark and would receive it from an unlikely hero a few days later. On April 16 against Creighton, the Huskers and Bluejays were tied at five heading into the bottom of the ninth. With winds blowing in excess of 50 miles per hour, freshman Joe Simokaitis delivered a one-out RBI single, giving NU a 6-5 win, as lightning and thunder filled the sky.
The win not only ignited NU’s second-half surge, but also showed the true quality of the 2002 Huskers – a team that could never be counted out until the final out. It was a team that scratched and clawed for 47 wins and a return to the College World Series. In many ways, it resembled its coach, a fact that he was exceptionally proud of.
“This is on of the most overachieving teams I’ve ever coached,” Dave Van Horn said. “We don’t have much speed or power, but our team showed a lot of heart and character. We found ways to win.”
Highlighting the 2002 Huskers were Morris and Leise, who both earned first-team All-America honors. Morris enjoyed one of the most prolific offensive seasons in school history, batting .382 with 23 homers and a school-record typing 90 RBIs. The Seabrook, Texas native was selected as the Big 12 Player of the Year and was one of the three finalists for the ABCA National Player of the Year. He was drafted by the Oakland Athletics following the season, one of four Huskers selected in the 2002 First-Year Player Draft.
Leise sparked the Huskers from his leadoff spot, batting .371 with 12 homers and 51 RBIs and 25 stolen bases. He finished the season with 109 hits, tying Francis Collins’ school record, en route to first-team All-Big 12 and All-America honors from the ABCA. A seventh-round selection by the Anaheim Angels, he was chosen for a more prestigious honor in June when he was named the Verizon/CoSIDA Academic All-American of the Year in baseball.
They were joined on the All-Big 12 team by Marsden, who joined the weekend rotation in mid-March. The left-hander from Grand Forks, N.D., finished the season with an 8-1 record and a 2.70 ERA, and was tabbed by the league’s coaches as the Big 12’s Newcomer of the Year. His emergence was a key down the stretch, as he went 6-1 with a 1.52 ERA against conference foes.
While Marsden carried the Big Red through the Big 12, Komine’s return sparked the Huskers during the postseason, as the two-time All-American went 10-0 with a 2.33 ERA. A ninth-round draft choice by Oakland, he became only the sixth pitcher in NCAA history to win 40 games in a career and strike out 500 hitters, finishing his career with 510 strikeouts, the fifth-highest total in NCAA history.
The Huskers opened the season by splitting their first six games, including a pair of one-run losses to Rice, which eventually qualified for the CWS, and Wake Forest. NU then headed west for a non-conference test against Fresno State, the Huskers’ final non-conference tune-up before Big 12 play. After Komine won the series opener, Jamie Rodrigue turned in a masterpiece the following evening, throwing a complete-game one-hitter as only Chris Patrick’s infield singled spoiled Rodrigue’s bid for the eighth no-hitter in school history. The following day, the Huskers complete the sweep, rallying for five runs in the final four innings for a 10-6 win.
With a 6-3 record, NU returned home for the grand opening of Hawks Field at Haymarket Park. The gleaming $29.53 million facility ushered in a new era for the Husker baseball program, as over 4,100 season tickets were sold two months prior to the home opener. On March 5, NU christened its new park with a 23-1 victory over UNK in front of 3,412 fans. Hawks Field would become an imposing place for visitors. The Huskers set a school record with 29 wins in the park’s inaugural season and averaged 4,110 fans per game, crushing the previous school record of 2,731 set in 2001.
After taking one of three games to open Big 12 play against Baylor, NU faced a crucial series against national ranked Texas A&M. The Huskers passed the early test with flying colors, sweeping the Aggies, including back-to-back shutouts by Rodrigue and Marsden, who threw a complete game one-hit shutout in his first Division l start. NU split its next two conference series, taking two of three from Texas Tech, but dropping a pair of one-run decisions at Kansas State the following weekend to end March with a 7-5 Big 12 mark.
During the first weekend of April, the Huskers had to deal with adversity in their series opener against Oklahoma. Komine went down with tendinitis in his elbow, while Hopper suffered a shoulder injury on an awkward slide. NU would regroup to take the final two games from the Sooners, but a pair of losses at Missouri left the Big Red at 10-8 in the circuit with only nine league games remaining.
Simokaitis’ game-winning hit versus Creighton set the stage for the Huskers, as they headed to No. 15 Oklahoma State for a three-game set. After splitting the first two-games, freshman Brian Duensing held OSU to one run and struck out a career-high eight Cowboys in six innings, as the Huskers took the finale by a score of 10-3, giving NU its first series win in Stillwater since 1971.
Nebraska then took two of three from Kansas the following weekend, setting up a conference showdown with fifth-ranked Texas in Austin. The Huskers needed a series win to have an outside shot of repeating as conference champions. Marsden held the Longhorns at bay in the opener, picking up his sixth win of the season, capping the 8-3 win with a two-run double. After a controversial 3-2 loss, the Huskers needed a win to guarantee a third-straight top-two league finish. Behind Justin Seely’s 4-for-4 effort with four RBIs and some clutch relief work from Waylon Byers, the Huskers escaped Austin with a 7-5 win to take the series- NU’s fourth straight over the Longhorns –and clinch second place in the league.
The Huskers closed the regular season with a flourish winning their final seven games. In a three-game sweep of Cal Poly, Morris provided most of the offense, delivering a two-run ninth-inning double in the opener and belting four homers on the weekend en route to national player-of-the-week honors. NU then traveled to Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium to take on Creighton in the rubber match of the series. Komine made his first start since early April and thrilled the crowd of 18,758 –the third-largest regular-season crowd in NCAA history –by striking out seven in a 9-1 win. NU continued to gain momentum, sweeping Louisiana Tech, as senior Will Bolt became NU’s all-time hits leader. The infielder passed Erstad’s school record of 261 hits, one of several career marks Bolt would eventually hold at the end of his outstanding four-year career.
Armed with an eight-game win streak, the Huskers entered the Big 12 Tournament in Arlington, Texas, with a 39-17 record. Behind the bat of first baseman Matt Hopper, who went 4-for-5 with a homer, the Huskers opened defense of their title with an 11-9 win over Baylor. The following day, the Big Red ran into a Texas Tech team that had won a Big 12 record 16 straight games entering the matchup. The Red Raiders proved to be no match for Nebraska, as the Huskers tallied at least one run in every inning en route to an impressive 12-8 victory, setting up a matchup with Kansas State for a berth in the title game. The Huskers needed some late-inning heroics to topple KSU, 9-8, in the semifinals, as John Grose’s ninth inning single scored Drew Anderson from second, barely avoiding the tag at the plate. Steve Hale came out of the bullpen to give NU a lift, striking out five in six innings of relief, sending the Huskers to their fourth straight conference tournament title game.
Against Texas, NU battled back from deficits of 4-0 and 6-4 to send the game into extra innings before falling, 9-6, to the Longhorns. Grose (.500 with seven RBIs) and second baseman Will Bolt (.500 with five RBIs) were selected to the all-tournament team.
For the second straight season, the Huskers had the privilege of hosting an NCAA Regional, and the fans came out in droves, setting stadium records all three days. NU didn’t disappoint the home folks, sweeping the regional by a combined score of 30-6. Homers by Jeff Blevins, Morris and Grose, along with six innings of scoreless relief by Duensing keyed the Huskers’ 7-2 victory over UW-Milwaukee.
Against Marist, NU jumped all over the Red Foxes, capitalizing on three errors to jump out to a 9-0 advantage. The lead would be more than enough for Komine, who struck out 12 in a complete-game victory, advancing the Big Red to the regional title game. The Huskers continued to roll, beating Southwest Missouri State, 14-3, as Leise opened the game with a homer, one of fourth hits on the day, and Simokaitis broke out of a slump with a pair of doubles and three RBIs.
The win over the Bears put NU back into a Super Regional where they would face Richmond for a berth in the College World Series. In the opener, the matchup between Komine and Spider All-American Tim Stauffer lived up to its billing, as the two aces locked up in a pitcher’s duel, allowing a combined two runs in 10 hits. NU squeezed out a 2-0 win on sacrifice flies by Hopper and Morris in the first and seventh innings. The next day, NU trailed 2-0 until Jeff Blevins’ two-run homer knotted the score. The deadlock would last until the ninth, when Vito Chiaravalloti’s grand slam sent the series to a decisive third game.
With a trip to Omaha on the line and a sellout crowd of 8,569 looking on, the Huskers and Spiders waged an epic see-saw battle that was tied heading into the eighth inning. NU loaded the bases on a walk and a pair of singles. With one out, Blevins broke the deadlock with a walk before Seely put the exclamation point on the rally with a towering grand slam to give the Huskers a 10-5 lead. With Komine, who came on in relief in the seventh, the lead would be more than sufficient, as the senior shut down the Spiders for an 11-6 win, picking up his second win in three days.
In both of their CWS losses the Huskers were valiant overcoming deficits and tying the score entering the ninth innings before succumbing on the opponents last at bat. Against Clemson, Bolt’s two-run triple knotted the score at 10-all before the Tigers’ won the contest in the ninth. In the elimination game against South Carolina, the Huskers and Gamecocks put on an entertaining display in from of a CWS record crowd 25,581 battling back and forth, as NU tied the score at 8-8 on Jed Morris’ 23rd homer of the season. South Carolina would end the Huskers’ season in the ninth on a two-run homer by Yaron Peters, handing NU’s its 11th last at-bat loss of the year.
Van Horn said the players who have gone through the program should be proud of what they started and accomplished during the last four years. The Husker seniors won a Big 12-high 190 games since 1999 and qualified for the NCAA Tournament all four years – a first in the program’s history.
“Nebraska is going to win a national championship one day – it might be five years or 10 years down the road – but these guys can pat themselves on the back when it happens because they are the ones that got it started,” Van Horn said. “They’re the ones that gave us a chance to mentally start thinking that you could win in the north and at Nebraska.”