KEARNEY — What do you do when your program dies?
It's a question Damon Day never remotely considered this February when he started his 15th season as the baseball coach at the University of Nebraska-Kearney.
Then he walked into a meeting with then-director of athletics Paul Plinske and was informed his program was part of $3.4 million in cuts to UNK's budget. Kearney's baseball team would cease to exist after it played its last game this season.
UNK will play its final home game Sunday at noon. Not of the season. In the history of its program. Senior day was Saturday, when the team recognized the entire roster. It made sense to do it then. Emotions will be strong enough Sunday.
"To see it all go away so fast, basically in the stroke of a pen, it breaks your heart. There's a huge hole in my heart," said Day, a consummate professional who couldn't help but let his emotions get the best of him Saturday. "They say time will heal all wounds. I don't think this one will ever heal."
It's a hell of a thing, knowing the end is coming. Many of UNK's players will move on to play at other schools. For some, it's too close to graduation to make a switch. For seniors such as Dallas Schramm, 2018 provides final opportunity to make memories.
Schramm, a first-team All-American last season, is one home run shy of tying UNK's career record. He's become a bit of a program representative over the last few months.
"It was definitely shock. Almost, not like a panic, but people didn't know what to expect moving forward. There was a lot of confusion," Schramm said of the team's reaction when the players got the news. "But I'm just proud of this team for not giving up on this year, because a lot of guys could have mailed it in and said 'I'm looking forward to next year' or whatever.
"But as a senior I'm so thankful for these guys. Because they've given me a heck of a senior year, and I couldn't be more proud."
The Lopers have never drawn many fans, but attendance was never the point. Without a high school baseball team in town, and with a powerful Legion program serving as a feeder system of sorts, UNK had a cult following that matched the intensity of any of the school's more prominent programs.
And Day, hired in 2004 to resurrect what had become a dormant team, has led the Lopers to some of their greatest successes.
In 2006, his third season, UNK posted its first winning record in more than a decade. The next two years saw back-to-back Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tournament titles and the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament appearances. In 2011 the Lopers finished 38-19, coming up one win short of the Division II World Series.
Day is all baseball. His gravelly voice and wraparound sunglasses are tailor-made for days in the dugout. He's morphed this season into part coach, part mentor, part psychologist while shepherding his team through an unthinkable scenario.
"It's been the elephant in the room. It's a balance, not only trying to get your guys to compete, but getting your guys to the next place (in their careers and lives). And every weekend's an audition and every weekend's an opportunity. That's a lot of pressure for a young person," Day said. "You make a choice to go to college, and then that pressure's kind of off. Now, you're trying to get them to win baseball games while still worrying about the future."
The previous two seasons in Kearney had produced sub-.500 records, and UNK was picked 10th in the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association poll this season.
But a funny thing happened when the Lopers learned their fate.
Already off to a 2-4 start, UNK went 4-6 in the first 10 games after the Feb. 12 announcement.
In the 30 games since, the Lopers are 21-9. At 27-19 overall and 20-11 in the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletics Association, they're going to finish fourth or fifth in the conference. Pittsburg (Kansas) State, UNK's opponent this weekend, came to Kearney ranked fourth in the Central Region. The Lopers have handed them losses of 10-7 and 16-4 in the first two games of the series.
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Playing at windblown Memorial Field on top of one of Kearney's highest hills, the Lopers lead all of NCAA Division II in home runs and doubles, are third in the nation in slugging percentage, fourth in hits, fifth in scoring and ninth in batting average. Four Lopers have double-digit homers. A fifth has nine.
"We can hit it," said first baseman Ty Roseberry, laughing. The Kearney sophomore is tied for the team lead with 15 home runs. "It's pretty fun. I've never been around anything like it."
There's nothing quite like the stories from the hilltop, where UNK played so many years in the wild west of the RMAC before moving to the MIAA.
How about the time Colorado State-Pueblo's coach, so disgusted by the tail-kicking his team was being handed at Memorial Field, decided to make his team walk back to its hotel near Interstate 80 several miles away? The ThunderWolves were later found by a UNK staffer being put through a workout on the Lopers' football field, having hopped a fence at the orders of their coach.
Or the time in 2004 when CSU-Pueblo came to Kearney the No. 2-ranked team in Division II, with a 33-2 record after winning the first two of a four-game series, leaving the park 33-3 after being shut down by a hard-throwing freshman pitcher who was still learning the art of pitching?
That pitcher's name was Joba Chamberlain. He earned fame pitching in Lincoln and fortune with the New York Yankees. He got his start in Kearney, recruited by Day when no one else was interested.
There was that time Mesa State's coach, after getting ejected for arguing a call, found an unlocked tractor in a maintenance yard beyond the foul territory in right field and climbing into the cab to watch the rest of the game before being asked, again, to leave by the umpire.
And those are just the stories that are printable.
"I can't thank the baseball community, not only in the city of Kearney, but throughout the entire state, for rallying behind our boys. I think it just goes to show how embedded we were into the community and how tough of a deal this is," Day said.
"Not only for me and the current players, but the alums, the people who came before, and a lot of people who had aspirations to be here in the past. I think we've had more kids on our roster from Kearney than any other sport at the university. And I think that goes to show you how much we were part of the community."
Baseball wasn't the only UNK sport affected.
The men's golf team played its final tournament Wednesday, finishing third at the MIAA Championships. Hebron's Jay Cottam is the Lopers' biggest gun and one of the state's top players, having won last summer's Nebraska Match Play championship and beating former Husker Justin Jennings in the championship match.
Men's tennis will host the NCAA Central Regional beginning Tuesday. That program reached its highest-ever national ranking this season, checking in at 17th.
In total, cutting the sports is expected to save UNK about $450,000. It's a nuclear option. A last resort for a university system short on state appropriations and a school losing students and therefore credit hours.
Day doesn't buy it.
"There was a way to find a way to save the program, and I think that's why you're seeing the backlash," he said. "Because it was a knee-jerk move. This isn't our first economic downturn, and we've survived over the years. I just feel like there was a better way to do this than to cut the program."
But what's done is done. The Lopers will play until the schedule says they can't play any more.
They hope that day doesn't come for a while.
"Our work ethic and our passion for the game, it's not going anywhere," Schramm said. "The next two weekends, three weekends, however long we play, we're going to give it our best effort."