When Will Bolt was hired more than a year ago, Nebraska's new baseball coach and his staff made their recruiting strategy immediately clear.
"We want to put up a fence around the state of Nebraska," said Lance Harvell, who joined Bolt from Sam Houston State.
The coaches have followed through on their word, corralling many of the state's top baseball prospects in a short period of time.
The incoming 2020 class includes eight Nebraska natives, and it received a major boost earlier in the week when Millard West shortstop Max Anderson changed his pledge from Texas A&M to NU.
The state's 2021 batch of prospects is one of the best in recent memory, and six of them are committed to the Huskers. And earlier this week, NU showed it's working ahead by landing a commitment from 2023 prospect Tucker Timmerman of Beatrice.
The Huskers have two known in-state 2022 pledges in pitchers Hayden Lewis (Yutan) and Nathan Moquin (Millard South).
"Looking at certain guys when we got here, we kind of knew, if we get this guy or these guys early on, the dominoes are going to start falling," said Harvell, who also serves as the Huskers' recruiting coordinator. "And we were able to do that.
"Now, one year later, I think we’ve kind of turned the tide a little bit in-state."
The Cornhusker State has for a long time pumped out a healthy number of Division I baseball prospects, but high school coaches agree, there's been a bit of a recent uptick. Strong high school programs are expanding outside the longtime perennial powers, and kids have more select teams and showcase tournaments to choose from. The Nebraska Prospects are developing many players, too. All six of Nebraska's 2021 commitments play for Prospects.
"The talent right now in the state is incredible, especially the 2021 class," said Elkhorn South coach Brandon Dahl, who has numerous Division I recruits on his team, including 2023's Cole Eaton (Tennessee commit) and Eli Small (Kentucky).
"I think there's better players around the state, but I also feel Coach Bolt with Nebraska, and other teams, are starting to see that you don't want this talent to leave the state," said Elkhorn coach Kyle McCright, who has two players in the Huskers' 2021 class in Drew Christo and Kyler Randazzo.
In recent years, some of those players have left the state, including Dylan Phillips (Kansas State), Austin Schultz (Kentucky) and Cole Strobbe (signed with Arkansas before going pro). Others like Michael Helman (Texas A&M) and Nolan Hoffman (Texas A&M) went to junior college, expanded their games and landed big-school offers. Logan Foster began his career at Texas A&M before following Bolt to Lincoln. Players such as Alec Bohm (Wichita State and later a top-five MLB Draft pick) fell through the cracks and blossomed in college.
So why the sudden success in keeping recruits in the state? What is Nebraska's sales pitch?
"I think a lot of it has to do — especially Bolt coming from A&M, the guys that they're producing there and then recognizing that type of talent — obviously those guys can develop," said Dahl, who has two 2021 Husker pledges in Jackson Brockett and Luke Jessen. "You look at A&M and they're getting some top-end guys in the country, but there's obviously development going on, and I think that's a lot with guys knowing that they can develop and hopefully get a chance to play past college."
Christo, a pitcher, is a cornerstone-caliber piece in the 2021 recruiting class. He committed to Nebraska in October, turning down offers from Virginia, Duke, Creighton and West Virginia. Lincoln Southwest's Max Petersen and Norris' CJ Hood are part of NU's 2021 class, too.
Dahl also notes that many of the recruits play with or against each other at various points and like the idea of getting together to help put NU baseball back on the map, and "for kids to go do that with other Nebraska kids, that's something special."
That played a part in Anderson's decision to sign with the Huskers. The Millard West graduate committed to Texas A&M, when Bolt was still with the Aggies, but a roster logjam following the shortened 2020 MLB Draft left Anderson looking for a new home.
The 2020 Nebraska Gatorade Player of the Year said the in-state players share a common goal.
"The 2005 College World Series team, they had a bunch of Midwestern-Nebraska guys that stayed and helped their home team out," said Anderson, who grew up attending Husker games. "I think Coach Bolt and Jeff Christy, them being a part of those teams, I think that they're trying to get back to that and I think that's the message they're instilling in all of these guys, and I think it's something everybody wants to be part of.
"It's a great thing, too. I love that we're having so many guys from the state coming."
The 2005 NU team is a source of pride for Husker fans. That team won the school's first and only College World Series game and had 18 Nebraskans on the roster, including Alex Gordon, Joba Chamberlain, Daniel Bruce, Brian Duensing and Christy.
McCright said he talks with Christy, a Lincoln Southeast graduate, quite a bit. McCright recalls the Husker coaches' emphasis on in-state recruiting when they were hired.
"I've been impressed because they've not only been talking the talk, but they've been walking the walk with that," he said. "Them saying that and then following through on it and really getting those in-state guys to stay I think just says a lot to high school coaches, because I think there's a lot of high school coaches that are like, 'Hey, we'd love to keep those kids in the state,' whether it would be Nebraska or Creighton."
Nebraska may not be done adding in-state recruits to upcoming classes. Elkhorn has a junior-to-be in Ben Ayala who is receiving D-I interest, and Elkhorn South senior-to-be Brady Christensen is working his way back from an arm injury and has Husker interest.
Though the interest will always be there for top-tier recruits to leave the state to play in the SEC or Big 12, high school coaches said the appeal to play for Nebraska, a northern baseball school, remains.
"You look at football, they're trying to do the same thing," Dahl said. "They understand that kids want to go play for their home state, and it shows. The (baseball) talent is here. It's not like they're just grabbing guys to grab guys. They're recognizing talent that other states have been getting, other big-time colleges, and they don't want that to go anymore. I think that shows a lot to guys, especially if these guys can go to Nebraska and go make some noise together, that's even more special than going to another program."
Reach Clark Grell at 402-473-2639 or email@example.com. On Twitter at @LJSSportsGrell.
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