The Nebraska baseball team is starting with a clean slate in 2012 as the Darin Erstad era begins at Haymarket Park. Along with a new coaching staff and a roster that includes 12 new players, the Huskers will enter their first season of Big Ten baseball after 15 successful seasons in the Big 12 Conference that included three regular-season titles and four tournament crowns.
A 14-year MLB veteran and World Series champion, Erstad takes over at his alma mater where he was one of the most successful players in program history. Prior to becoming the No. 1 overall pick in the 1995 amateur draft, Erstad was a first-team All-American and the Big Eight Co-Player of the Year as a junior in 1995.
“It is a great honor to be the head coach of the Nebraska baseball program,” Erstad said. “My family and I believe strongly in what the University stands for, and I am excited to have this opportunity to help influence kids’ lives in a positive way and help them turn into young men. I am committed to helping them grow as people.”
Erstad is not the only former Husker on his coaching staff, as he brought on Will Bolt as his associate head coach and Jeff Christy as the team’s volunteer assistant. A four-year starter and team captain on Nebraska’s 2001 and 2002 College World Series teams, Bolt was a volunteer assistant on the Huskers’ 2005 squad that set a school record with 57 wins and produced the program’s first win at the College World Series. Christy was a junior on the 2005 team and caught a school-record 64 games that season.
“It is an incredible opportunity to come back to a place where I had so many fond memories as a player and coach,” Bolt said. “I am humbled and excited to work at my alma mater, and looking forward to making an impact in a coaching role and helping this program reach its goals. It is an honor to be included on a staff put together by a Husker legend and long-time big leaguer in Coach Erstad.”
For his pitching coach, Erstad plucked Ted Silva away from California where he had coached at UC Irvine and Loyola Marymount over the past four seasons. As a player, Silva was a first-team All-American at Cal State Fullerton and earned the win in the Titans’ 1995 national championship game against USC at the College World Series.
Name (Yr.) - Pos
Luke Bublitz (So.) - RHP
Ryan Hander (Jr.) - RHP.
Zach Hirsch (So.) - LHP
Jon Keller (So.) - RHP
Tyler King (So.) - LHP
Tom Lemke (Jr.) - RHP
Tyler Niederklein (Jr.) - RHP
Brandon Pierce (So.) - RHP
Dylan Vogt (Jr.) - RHP
Chris Williams (Jr.) - RHP
Name (Yr.) - Pos
Aaron Bummer (Fr.) - LHP
Austin Christensen (Fr.) - LHP
Travis Huber (Jr.) - RHP
Kyle Kubat (Fr.) - LHP
Dexter Spitsnogle (Sr.) - RHP
Jeff Stovall (Fr.) - RHP
Silva will have a young group in 2012 that includes one senior, six juniors, five sophomores and four freshmen. While the staff brings back a majority of its weekend rotation, the biggest void is the one left in the closer role by 2011 second-team All-Big 12 performer Casey Hauptman. Three pitchers are likely to get a shot at the job in 2012, including Tyler Niederklein, Travis Huber and Brandon Pierce. Niederklein was a weekend starter for the Huskers in 2011 and posted a 8-3 record, but Erstad likes his attitude on the mound and thinks Niederklein has the right make-up to close game. Pierce was second on the team last year in saves with two, while Huber is a hard-throwing transfer from the College of Southern Idaho. The right-hander has been selected twice in the MLB Draft by the Florida Marlins.
Two of the spots in the weekend rotation are likely to go to sophomore Jon Keller and junior Tom Lemke. Keller got great experience as a true freshman with 14 starts last season and was second on the team with 64.2 innings worked. Lemke, who is coming off surgery to remove a blood clot this summer, looks to have his first healthy season at Nebraska after joining the team from Northwest Christian High School in Phoenix, Ariz., where he was a 10th-round pick by the Texas Rangers.
The young bullpen will lean on the experience of junior Dylan Vogt, who worked 47.0 innings over 21 appearances last season, which was tied for second on the team. Spots throughout the bullpen are up for grabs and should create great competition for time on the mound.
Name (Yr.) - Pos
Cory Burleson (Sr.) - C
Sam Stucky (Sr.) - C
Name (Yr.) - Pos
Taylor Fish (Fr.) - C
Richard Stock (Jr.) - C
After catching a career-high 30 games in 2011, Cory Burleson returns for his senior year as the most experienced catcher on the team following the departure of Patric Tolentino. Not only will Burleson need to mentor a young pitching staff, but he will also need to continue to improve on his run production after ranking fifth on the team last season with 21 RBIs in 40 games.
Sam Stucky is the only catcher who has stepped on the field in a Husker jersey, as he saw action in four games last season. Prior to the start of practice, Erstad raved about Stucky’s work ethic during the offseason.
“Sam didn’t get much playing time last season, but all he has done is work harder than anyone else on the team this offseason,” Erstad said.
Also available behind the plate are junior transfer Richard Stock and freshman Taylor Fish. Stock will provide a power bat off the bench and has two years of eligibility left after playing at Southern Cal and Pierce College in Los Angeles. While at USC, Stock pulled off the rare feat of hitting a home run on the first pitch he saw in his first career at bat. Fish will learn from the veterans of the group during his freshman season after earning a spot on the team as a walk-on from Kearney.
Name (Yr.) - Pos
Kurt Farmer (Jr.) - 3B
Kash Kalkowski (Jr.) - 1B
Bryan Peters (Jr.) - 2B
Josh Scheffert (Jr.) - INF
Name (Yr.) - Pos
Austin Christensen (Fr.) - INF
Blake Headley (Fr.) - INF
Pat Kelly (Fr.) - SS
Fans will see a re-tooled Husker infield in 2012 as only second baseman Bryan Peters will be back in the same position he played a year ago.
After posting 53 of his 55 starts at first base in 2011, junior Kurt Farmer will switch corners in 2012 and take over for the departed Cody Asche at third base. Farmer will have big shoes to fill, as Asche led the Huskers in nearly every offensive category, including a school-record 27 doubles, on his way to being drafted in the fourth round by the Philadelphia Phillies. The staff is confident in Farmer, after he hit .275 and drove in 32 runs in his first season as a full-time starter in 2011. He should also provide a great glove at the hot corner, as Erstad believes he has the best hands on the team.
To Farmer’s left will be true freshman Pat Kelly out of Red Wing, Minn. Kelly looked great during the fall and earned the confidence of the coaching staff. He looks to be the first freshman to start a season opener at shortstop since Ben Kline started their as a freshman in 2008 at Stanford.
Peters will once again lock down the second base position after starting 55 games a year ago. Along with being solid in the field, Peter led the team in hit-by-pitches (18), sacrifices (18) and stolen bases (12) last season.
One of the biggest surprises a year ago was the transformation of Kash Kalkowski. The Grand Island native started his Husker career as a pitcher in 2009 and had just four at-bats. Following a redshirt year in 2010 while recovering from surgery, Kalkowski successfully made the transition to the field and was arguably the team’s top offensive threat behind Asche last season. After earning all his starts in 2011 in the outfield and at designated hitter, Kalkowski will look to continue his offensive growth, while moving to first base.
Erstad will look to junior Josh Scheffert to play both corners of the infield, as a designated hitter and possibly on the mound. Following a down season in 2011, Scheffert has put in the time during the offseason to rebound in 2012.
Freshman Blake Headley can play any spot in the infield and Austin Christensen could see time at first base, designated hitter and on the mound. Headley was unable to play during the fall due to a wrist injury, while Christensen saw time on the mound and in the field. The younger brother of junior Chad Christensen, Austin came to Nebraska as a pitcher, but hit .400 (4-for-10) with a double, three runs scored and an RBI during the team’s annual Red-White Series in the fall to earn playing time in the field as well.
Name (Yr.) - Pos
Chad Christensen (Jr.) - OF
Khiry Cooper (Sr.) - OF
Kale Kiser (Sr.) - OF
Michael Pritchard (So.) - OF
Name (Yr.) - Pos
Austin Darby (Fr.) - OF
Rich Sanguinetti (Jr.) - OF
Quentin Urban (Fr.) - OF
Many players will be vying for time in the outfield this year with all three spots open. Senior Kale Kiser made his transition to the outfield with ease last season after playing the infield his first two seasons at Nebraska. Kiser drew 41 of his 51 starts in the outfield and was a table-setter for the Huskers with an on-base percentage of .417.
Fellow senior Khiry Cooper is one of the top defenders on the team and will need to get in the cage to regain his timing at the plate after finishing his junior season at wide receiver for Bo Pelini’s football team.
Junior Chad Christensen is a veteran on the diamond for the Huskers, but will be a rookie in the outfield this season. After starting all 55 games at shortstop in 2011, Christensen will look to take his defensive skills to one of the three outfield spots in 2012
“We’re excited to have Chad’s speed and athleticism in the outfield,” Erstad said. “The biggest thing for him will be repetition. Chad is one of the hardest workers on the team though. He’ll take fly balls all day long. He’ll be ready to play for us out there.”
Sophomore Michael Pritchard is the youngest of the returning players and will most likely see most of his time at designated hitter. One of the best hitters on the team, Pritchard provides the Huskers with a solid bat on the left side of the plate after hitting .304 as a freshman with an on-base percentage of nearly .400.
The four returners will also be pushed by a trio of newcomers in Austin Darby, Rich Sanguinetti and Quentin Urban.
Sanguinetti has the most experience of the group, as he is a junior college transfer from Texarkana CC, where current Associate Head Coach Will Bolt was the head coach the last four seasons. The junior is a pure hitter and has great baseball speed, evident by his perfect 5-for-5 in stolen base attempts in three games during the team’s fall Red-White Series.
Darby is also solid at the plate and the coaches know they need to get him on the field because of his ability to drive in runs, while Urban is one of the best athletes on the team. Urban originally committed to South Dakota to play football before switching his commitment to Nebraska following the hiring of Erstad as head coach.
The Huskers will play 31 home games at Hawks Field and will have 13 contests against 2011 NCAA Tournament teams, including a four-game home stand against 2011 College World Series qualifier California. The 56-game schedule starts with 10 games on the road before the Huskers host their home opener against former Big 12 foe Kansas State on Tuesday, March 6. The Huskers will play eight Big Ten Conference series, with three conference schools not on the schedule, including Penn State and Michigan State, as well as Wisconsin, which doesn’t have a baseball program.
Erstad will start his first season as NU’s head coach on Friday, Feb. 17, when the Huskers open a three-game series with Gonzaga in Peoria, Ariz. The Huskers then head to Corpus Christi, Texas, the following weekend to play four games in three days with two games against Utah, as well as one each against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and UNLV.
Nebraska will open the month of March at the Dairy Queen Classic in Minneapolis, Minn., with games against West Virginia, New Mexico State and Minnesota.
The Huskers then return home for a 17-game home stand that starts and ends with games against Kansas State. The Huskers and California Golden Bears will open their four-game series on Friday, March 9, with first-pitch set for 1:35 p.m. It will mark the second straight year that the Huskers have hosted a non-conference series against a team that played in the College World Series the previous season, after NU hosted 2010 CWS qualifier UCLA during the 2011 campaign.
Following the Cal series, the Huskers will host South Dakota State (March 13), Louisiana Tech (March 16-18) and Northern Colorado (March 20-21) before Illinois comes to Lincoln for NU’s first Big Ten Conference series. The Fighting Illini will enter Lincoln as the league’s defending conference tournament champion after defeating Michigan State last season.
After completing their 17-game home stand with Kansas State on Tuesday, March 27, the Huskers head to Evanston, Ill., for their first Big Ten road series when they visit Northwestern for a three-game series that starts on Friday, March 30.
The month of April starts with the final game of the Northwestern series and is followed by a mid-week road trip to Manhattan for a final meeting with KSU on Tuesday, April 3. The Huskers host Iowa (April 6-8) the following weekend before playing the first of three games against Creighton on Tuesday, April 10, at Hawks Field. The final two games will be at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha on Tuesday, April 24, and Tuesday, May 8.
April also includes a conference road series at Ohio State (April 13-15) and a home series with Purdue (April 20-22), while the month concludes with a three-game slate against CSU Bakersfield at Hawks Field starting on Friday, April 27. It will be the Roadrunners’ second trip to Lincoln in four years, after they took 2-of-3 games from the Huskers during the 2009 campaign.
Along with non-conference games with Missouri Valley programs Creighton and Wichita State in May, the Huskers finish out the conference season with trips to Indiana and Michigan, as well as a home stand with Minnesota.
The 2012 postseason will open on Wednesday, May 23, when NU hopes to be one of the league’s six teams that advance to the Big Ten Tournament. The five-day tournament is held at Huntington Park in Columbus, Ohio, which is the home park of the Cleveland Indians’ Triple-A organization, the Columbus Clippers.