During a year when five of the eight national seeds in the NCAA baseball tournament failed to make it out of regional play, Nebraska coach Mike Anderson was glad that his team hung in long enough to face Arizona State in the championship round.
At the same time, there was some disappointment. Had the Huskers been more focused earlier in the season, Anderson believes they would have been in a better position than to be sent on the road as a No. 3 seed in a regional that featured the No. 5 national seed.
“Had we done every single thing right throughout the year and been a team that didn’t make some mistakes off the field, we might’ve had a chance to do some things at home and change the course at the end of it,” Anderson said. Nebraska finished 32-27 after going 2-2 in its regional.
“Our talent level wasn’t one that we could just step on a field and just go beat people. We had to be disciplined and structured. We made some mistakes early in our season that didn’t allow us to do that.
“No regrets. I wouldn’t trade anything. But in looking at the future, if we have a talent level like we had this year, we’ve got to be very structured and make what we have work.”
Earning an eighth regional berth in nine seasons was no easy chore for NU. In addition to playing a schedule that wound up being ranked the nation’s fifth-toughest, the Huskers had an assortment of off-field distractions that forced Anderson to issue suspensions and dismiss senior pitcher Mike Harmelink.
Nebraska also parted ways with preseason All-America shortstop Ryan Wehrle in early May for what Anderson said was repeated behavior unflattering to the program.
Even with their struggles, the Huskers, who dropped their first three Big 12 Conference series, won five of their final six to finish fourth in the league. They also put some of the disappointment of going 0-2 in a home regional as the No. 6 national seed last season behind them by playing well enough to get a shot at Arizona State.
Nebraska lost to the Sun Devils 19-7 on Sunday (giving up 10 unanswered runs in the last two innings) after eliminating UC Riverside earlier in the day.
“Things were never bad in the clubhouse — things were bad off the field,” Anderson said. “We had kids make mistakes off the field, (but) they never lost that bond. They never lost that chemistry.”
Nebraska could return seven position starters in 2008, which will represent the start of a new era in college baseball, as all teams have to abide by uniform practice and competition starting dates.
The underclassmen who started in 2007 were all juniors except for right fielder DJ Belfonte, a freshman. They are: catcher Mitch Abeita, second baseman Jake Opitz, third baseman Craig Corriston, left fielder Andy Gerch, center fielder Bryce Nimmo and designated hitter Jeff Tezak. In addition, sophomore Jake Mort replaced Wehrle at shortstop.
Nebraska’s top three starting pitchers — Tony Watson, Luke Wertz and Johnny Dorn — also were juniors. Watson and Wertz, however, will likely turn pro.
Watson was taken Friday in the ninth round of the major-league draft by Pittsburgh, a year after going in the 17th round. Wertz was chosen in the 13th round by Philadelphia.
The Huskers had three other pitchers drafted — junior Matt Foust (sixth round by the Pirates), junior Steve Edlefsen (16th round by San Francisco) and sophomore Charlie Shirek (23rd round by the White Sox).
“I don’t think it’s unfair to say we need to increase our talent level,” Anderson said. “I think we should say that every year. From teams past, our talent level wasn’t the same. And we (still) played in a regional championship.
“I think it’s outstanding (to have a lot of returning seniors), because the experiences that they’ve gotten here have been vital. … My reflecting mood, as well as theirs, was that we’re pretty dang close to doing what we wanted to do.”
Even if the perception of some of their followers was markedly different.
“Personally, I think there’s four of five teams that are expected to be in the (College) World Series every single year,” Anderson said. “Stanford, because of their past, LSU, Texas and us. We’re expected, because it’s here. Everybody else, if we took this same team and moved it to Alabama this year and did what we did, it’d probably be (judged as) pretty successful when we got to a regional.
“(You’ve got) national powerhouses that didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament. And yet, a perception is we had a bad year. That’s a tough one to swallow. My inner focus has got to be not all that other stuff. My inner focus has got to be with these guys and say: ‘What did we get out of this group?’ And I know we got the most out of these kids in 2007.”
n Volunteer assistant Justin Seely and graduate manager Ryan Strain, both finishing their second seasons at NU, are moving on to other coaching positions. Strain is headed to Northern Colorado. Seely is mulling offers, one of which is believed to have come from former Husker Will Bolt, recently named head coach at Texarkana College.
n While many Huskers have already headed out for summer league ball, a few will be sticking around. Mort, who missed 13 games with a right shoulder injury, is having the shoulder evaluated again. Abeita, who broke his right leg during the Big 12 Tournament, will be in rehabilitation for about another month. And Dorn is going to spend the summer working out in Lincoln.
“We’re going to work him out in a different way, change some of his lifting programs and some different things, (to) try to get him where he has a little more velocity,” Anderson said.
n Nebraska’s 2008 schedule won’t be released for a while, but the Huskers plan on opening the season with a four-game series at Stanford. NU also has scheduled national power Arkansas for two mid-week games and is finalizing a series with NCAA regional participant Louisiana-Lafayette.