While fans who visit the University of Nebraska campus can see the progress of the Memorial Stadium expansion project, another construction project is well underway nearby at Haymarket Park, as the Husker baseball team is in the midst of retooling for another run at postseason success.
After a season that saw Nebraska post a 36-23 record and barely missed out on qualifying for an NCAA Regional for the sixth straight season, Head Coach Mike Anderson and his staff are determined to return the Huskers to the top of the Big 12 standings in 2005.
While it is not an extreme makeover per se, Husker fans will see significant changes in 2005, as one of the nation’s top recruiting classes joins a veteran-laden squad in giving NU a variety of options.
The Huskers, who return six everyday position players along with three of their top four weekend starters, welcome a recruiting class that was rated among the top-20 nationally.
Anderson said that mixture of veteran talent, which features first-team All-American Alex Gordon along with three other returning All-Big 12 players, and youthful exuberance has made the fall and spring one of the most competitive in recent years.
"There are a lot of jobs to be won in the spring," Anderson said. "We have five or six outfielders competing for starting jobs and have good competition across the infield and at catcher. On the mound, we have a good mixture of veterans and newcomers.
"We have great competition for the travel roster, as we have to decide which 30 we are taking to Hawaii for our season opener and eventually trim that to 25 for the start of conference play in late March."
Let’s take a closer look at the 2005 Huskers.
Under Pitching Coach Rob Childress, the Huskers have ranked among the Big 12 leaders in ERA, posting team totals below 4.00 in each of the last three seasons, including last season’s total of 3.76, which tied for second in the Big 12.
This spring, Childress brings back his most experienced staff in his eight-year tenure at Nebraska, as the six returnees feature fifth-year seniors Dustin Timm and Jeremy Becker, along with Phil Shirek and Brian Duensing, who have each been in the program for three years.
Shirek and Timm joined junior Zach Kroenke, a second-team All-Big 12 selection, in the Huskers’ weekend rotation during conference play, giving Childress a stable foundation to build a staff around.
"It is comforting to know that we have as much experience as anyone in the conference, especially in our starting rotation" Childress said. "For us, it is important because we try and recruit high school pitchers and have them develop in our program. By the time they are juniors and seniors, they have had three or four years experience.
"To me, seniors win championships, and to have those guys back as seniors, especially Phil and Dusty, who both had an opportunity to go pro after their junior year, makes me feel very confident heading into the season."
Kroenke headlines the Husker staff after going 7-5 with a 3.03 ERA in 2004. The 6-foot-2 left-hander earned second-team All-Big 12 honors and allowed three runs or less in 11 of his 15 starts. The Omaha Northwest product tossed a pair of complete games, a one-hitter with seven strikeouts at Kansas State and a three-hitter against No. 10 Texas A&M. Kroenke spent the summer pitching in the Cape Cod League, and will make a strong bid for first-team all-league accolades this spring.
Shirek (right) brings extensive experience to the Huskers’ weekend rotation, as he tops all current Huskers in both wins (14) and starts. He went 5-1 with a 3.07 ERA, highlighted by nine innings of shutout baseball against No. 18 Oklahoma in his final regular-season start of 2004. A 44th-round draft pick by Cleveland, Shirek had a bone spur removed over the summer and was sidelined throughout the fall, but comes into the spring at close to 100 percent and will be counted on heavily.
Senior Dustin Timm made a remarkable recovery from Tommy John surgery, enjoying his best year as a Husker. After returning to the mound 11 months after Tommy John surgery, Timm went 2-3 with a 3.89 ERA, splitting time between the bullpen and the weekend rotation. Like Shirek, Timm, a 26th-round pick by Milwaukee, returned for his senior year and has strengthened his arm in hopes of keeping a spot in the rotation.
The fourth veteran with Big 12 starting experience is the player who Childress has tabbed his top recruit in 2005. Junior Brian Duensing (left), who was one of the league’s top pitchers before developing an elbow injury, went 3-0 with a 2.42 ERA in four starts in 2003 before missing nearly two full seasons with the injury.
"Brian was as good as anyone we had on the mound two years ago, and he is going to be ready to be starting for us by the time we start conference play," Childress said. "He’s been very good the last two months, and we have seen improvements every time he throws."
"Those two and Dusty (Timm) have pitched in a lot of games for us over the years, and we know they will go out there and throw strikes to keep us in games," Childress said.
Becker, a fifth-year senior who originally walked on to the Husker program, has made 56 appearances as a Husker, including 22 last season when he went 0-1 with a 5.06 ERA. Becker, whose 22 appearances ranked second on the staff, fanned 19 in 16 innings and allowed just five of 26 inherited runners to score. Jensen was used in a variety of roles out of the bullpen, going 1-4 with a 5.29 ERA in 20 outings. He also had two saves, allowed just six of 23 inherited runners to score and walked just five hitters in 32 innings.
In addition to Duensing, a trio of Huskers who missed the 2004 season because of injuries are anxiously awaiting the spring to make significant contributions.
Tony Watson, a 23rd round draft pick out of high school, missed all of 2004 with a shoulder injury. He has regained the form that helped him to a 9-0 record with a 0.10 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 69 innings at Dallas Center-Grimes (Iowa) High School. Watson has the natural ability to be a dominant pitcher in the college ranks.
Matt Foust, the Gatorade Player of the Year in Kansas two seasons ago, also missed the spring because of an injury, but has put himself into contention for a spot in the bullpen. As a senior in high school, he posted a 1.42 ERA and struck out 61 in 42 innings.
Sophomore Mike Harmelink was one of the Huskers’ most improved pitchers in the fall of 2003, before undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing all of last season. If healthy, Harmelink could emerge as one of the set-up men in the bullpen.
Chamberlain, who could either start or close out of the bullpen, worked as a starter at Nebraska-Kearney, leading the Lopers in ERA, strikeouts and complete games as a freshman. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder was the surprise of the fall, as he was nearly unhittable at times with an overpowering fastball.
Bohanan, a four-time all-state pick out of Goddard, Kan., went 4-0 with a 1.82 ERA in leading his team to a state title last spring. Dorn, the Gatorade Player of the Year in Nebraska in 2004 after going 9-1 with a 1.15 ERA, continued his dominance in the fall, striking out 14 and walking one in 21 innings while posting a 0.82 ERA.
"As a group, this may be one of the most talented groups we have ever brought in," Childress said. "We think they will have the ability to make a huge contribution for us as they develop at the Division I level."
Others who could contend for a spot on the Husker travel roster include junior college transfer Seth Svoboda and freshmen Ryan Hines, Tim Radmacher, Drew Schwab, Charlie Shirek and Luke Wertz, who all earned all-state honors last season. Radmacher and Shirek were the state players of the year in Minnesota and North Dakota, respectively.
One position where a newcomer will emerge is behind the plate, where junior college transfers Jeff Christy and Adam Moore were vying to replace two-year captain John Grose. However, Moore suffered a season-ending injury in early February, giving Christy the opportunity to see significant time behind the plate in his first season at Nebraska.
Christy spent the last two seasons at Barton County Community College, batting .390 with six homers, 45 RBIs and 26 doubles. He was named the league’s defensive player of the year in 2004, committing one error and throwing out 40 percent of base stealers.
A former 28th-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Moore batted .395 with 14 homers and 66 RBIs at Northeast Texas Community College, while also throwing out nearly 70 percent of base stealers. Moore belted 28 homers and drove in 126 runs in two years of junior college ball. The knee injury will force Moore to redshirt in 2005, but he should be at full speed for the start of fall drills.
Freshman Mark Hightower serves as one of the Huskers’ primary backup catchers after walking on to the team in the fall. The Elkhorn, Neb., product earned honorable-mention all-state honors after hitting .370 and throwing out 40 percent of base runners in 2004.
First baseman Curtis Ledbetter could be another option behind the plate, as he played the position in high school and at Garden City Community College in 2001.
The strength of the Husker roster is unquestionably in the infield, where all three of Nebraska returnees are all-conference performers, including All-American third baseman Alex Gordon. The infield played a major role in helping NU set a school record with a .976 fielding percentage - an average that led the Big 12 and ranked seventh nationally.
Gordon enters 2005 as one of the nation’s premier players and has the potential to be the first Husker selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball Draft since 1995. The reigning Big 12 Player of the Year, Gordon earned unanimous first-team All-America honors, hitting .365 with 18 homers and 75 RBIs last spring. Gordon, who ranked in the top four in the Big 12 in nine offensive categories, played all but four innings in the field in 2004. He spent the summer with Team USA, hitting .388 with four homers and 12 RBIs and was the top offensive player in the World University Baseball Games after batting .523 with two homers, five RBIs and eight runs scored.
"He’s gotten stronger and has worked on defining his swing," Anderson said. "He’s become more in tune with what he is trying to do at the plate. If something is out of sync, he can work on things on his own and that is something a mature hitter does. He’s got a plan for what he wants to do at the plate."
One of two three-year starters in the Husker lineup, Joe Simokaitis (right) provides NU the luxury of one of the best shortstops in the league. The senior from St. Louis batted .279 with one homer and 33 RBIs while starting 56 contests. He ranked among the team leaders with nine stolen bases and showed the ability to produce clutch hits down the stretch. Defensively, he is one of the Big 12’s best, fielding at a .960 clip, as he cut his errors from 22 to 10 in 2004. After honing his skills in the Cape Cod League over the summer, Simokaitis will look to earn All-Big 12 honors for the third time in his career.
The other two-time All-Big 12 honoree, first baseman Curtis Ledbetter shined in his first full year at the position in 2004. He committed one error in 473 chances for a .998 fielding percentage, the best ever by a Husker with 400 chances in a season. Ledbetter also provided a solid bat in the middle of the lineup, hitting .297 with eight homers and 56 RBIs. He also led the Huskers with 12 game-winning RBIs. During his two-year Husker career, the Lawrence, Kan., native has averaged more than an RBI per game.
Smith batted .296 with a homer and three RBIs in 2004 despite battling a shoulder injury for most of the year. The Omaha Westside product had shoulder surgery in September and missed the fall, but has hopes of being healthy in time for the start of practice. Buckman comes in after earning NJCAA All-America honors at Garden City Community College. Last season, he hit .460 with 16 homers and 69 RBIs, while ranking among the national leaders in hitting and homers. The left-handed swinging Buckman could also see time at designated hitter. Wagner rounds out the quartet at the position, as he hit .364 with one homer and 33 RBIs playing for the Kansas City Sluggers. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder will likely redshirt as he adapts to the college ranks.
One of the most contested battles is taking place at second base, as freshmen Ryan Wehrle and Jake Opitz enter the spring in a dead heat for the starting position. Both newcomers bring impressive credentials to the Husker program.
Wehrle comes to Nebraska from Papillion-LaVista High School, where he ranked among the top 200 seniors nationally last season. A three-time All-Nebraska selection and the Louisville Slugger Nebraska Player of the Year, Wehrle batted .414 with four homers, 38 RBIs and 47 runs scored as a senior and drove in over 100 runs in his last three seasons on the high school level.
Opitz also enjoyed a stellar prep career, as he was named Colorado Player of the Year playing for Heritage High School. A 39th-round selection of the Seattle Mariners, the 6-foot, 190-pounder batted .529 with 12 homers, 45 RBIs and 18 stolen bases in leading Heritage to a state runner-up finish in 2004. Both players also bring versatility to the middle infield spots, as Anderson will interchange both freshmen and Simokaitis between shortstop and second base.
One of the differences between 2004 and 2005 is the depth at the infield positions, as the coaches will use a variety of lineups. Last season’s top infield backup was sophomore Tyler Vaughn, who saw action at second, short and third, and he appeared in 16 contests, batting .194 with four RBIs. Vaughn will likely miss the entire 2005 season after suffering a shoulder injury at the NBC World Series last August.
Freshmen Casey Klapperich and Jake Mort add to the ample infield talent. Klapperich is a native of Rapid City, S.D., who was a career .451 hitter in American Legion baseball. The Husker coaches have been impressed with his hard-nosed style of play and believe he has a bright future at Nebraska. Mort, a two-time All-Nebraska infielder and pitcher, was a career .419 hitter and scored nearly 100 runs during his career at Nebraska City High School. The 5-foot-11, 165-pounder will add depth at third, as he will likely redshirt in his first year as a Husker.
While the Huskers return two starters, including three-year starter Daniel Bruce, the outfield has been very competitive during the fall, as seven players are in the mix for playing time. Bruce and senior Jesse Boyer manned the corner outfield positions for most of 2004. The Huskers also welcome back Brandon Fusilier, who started in left two years ago before redshirting last year because of a shoulder injury.
"With the competition we have, the players are going to have to earn those roles, and we will be able to mix-and-match depending on the opposing matchup," Anderson said. "One of the things we wanted to do was to build our depth, especially in the outfield, and I think we did a very good job of that."
Nebraska is fortunate to have a pair of returning starters in left in Boyer and Fusilier.
Boyer (right) shared time in the leadoff spot last season, a year he finished with a .302 average with 40 runs scored. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder also topped the Huskers with 14 stolen bases in 18 attempts in 2004. In his first year at the Division I level, Boyer was also Nebraska’s top hitter in conference play, batting .313 in 26 contests
Fusilier is a welcome addition to a Husker outfield that hit only 11 homers and drove in 91 runs among its top four players a year ago. As a junior in 2003, Fusilier batted .289 with six homers and 41 RBIs while helping the Huskers to a Big 12 regular-season title. Fusilier shook off the rust during the fall, hitting over .400 in the fall, and will be a regular in the middle of the lineup either in left or at designated hitter.
"Its nice to have Fusilier back and fully healthy," Anderson said. "He has done everything we have asked of him in the fall, and he is someone who can hit in the middle of our lineup and drive in runs behind Alex."
In right, Nebraska returns three-year starter Daniel Bruce (left), who is one of the league’s best defensive players at the position. He has thrown out 13 runners from the position in his three seasons at Nebraska and was voted the best arm in the league by Baseball America in each of the past two seasons. Bruce, who hit close to .300 in his first two years at NU looks to bounce back after a disappointing season at the plate, hitting .243 with eight homers and 33 RBIs in 2004.
Redshirt freshman Andy Gerch looks to build on an outstanding fall, where he hit .600 with three runs scored and a pair of RBIs at the Red/White Series. A former first-team All-Nebraska selection at Lincoln Pius X, Gerch sat out last season after transferring from Arkansas and has impressed the coaches with his work ethic.
Adams transferred to Nebraska from Blinn College, where he batted .420 with five homers, 42 RBIs and 21 stolen bases last season. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder helped Blinn College to 43 wins and the regional title game in 2004. A former high school teammate of Brandon Fusilier, Adams is a very good defensive outfielder and could hit in a number of spots throughout the lineup.
Nimmo is more of a prototypical leadoff hitter, as he stole 188 bases and scored nearly 500 runs during his American Legion career in Cheyenne, Wyo. The 6-foot, 165-pounder was a two-time MVP of the state legion tournament and hit .502 with 17 homers, 71 RBIs and 40 stolen bases last summer. The left-handed hitting Nimmo quickly adapted to the college game and will contend for early playing time.
Another newcomer who will figure into the mix is freshman Nick Sullivan, who could play either corner outfield position. The Arvada, Colo., native earned first-team All-Colorado honors last spring, hitting .526 with 10 homers, 31 RBIs and 33 runs scored. In addition to giving the Huskers another left-handed bat with power, Sullivan is one of the most athletic players on the roster.
Freshman Deric Manrique gives the Huskers another intriguing outfield prospect. The 5-10, 170-pound speedster set an Iowa state record with 184 stolen bases, including 46 as a senior and a state record 62 in 2003. A four-sport athlete in high school, Manrique hit .436 with four homers and 41 RBIs last season.