June 17, 2005 was the pinnacle of Nebraska baseball. They had just beaten Arizona State before a crowd of almost 25,000 (including myself) to win their first-ever College World Series game. Nebraska fans could recite the names of players like Joba Chamberlain, Johnny Dorn, Alex Gordon and Brett Jensen almost like they could Nebraska football players.
The hope was there that this Nebraska team could win the national championship. They had beaten Texas and Baylor, two other Big 12 teams, at the CWS, in the regular season and Big 12 Tournament. Their pitching was the best in the nation, and their bats terrified opposing pitchers.
Then they lost to Florida. Then to Arizona State in extra innings. They haven't been back since.
In 2006, they were granted a home regional but lost both games, ending their season. They were seeded in the Tempe, Arizona regional in 2007 and lost the championship game to Arizona State. They lost their home regional again in 2008.
They haven't made their own conference tournament, let alone the NCAA Tournament, since 2008. Head coach Mike Anderson was fired after the 2011 season and replaced by former Husker Darin Erstad. Erstad hired Will Bolt, former Husker All-American, as his hitting coach. There was hope this coaching staff could, in time, turn around the Nebraska baseball program.
As we look to this weekend's series with nationally-ranked Purdue, it is hard to imagine it is the first time two teams with winning conference records have met at Hawks Field since 2008. It's also a good thing. It means Nebraska (sporting a 25-13 overall record and 7-5 record in the Big Ten) is competing again.
Nebraska has started getting the job done at the plate. They are No. 1 in the Big Ten in runs scored (7.7 per game), home runs (33, more than double Purdue's 15), and hits (423). They are also the top team defensively, boasting a .976 fielding percentage, picking off 16 of the 35 stolen base attempts and forcing 11 double plays.
All those numbers are nice, but this team is not close to what they were seven years ago. They still have a team ERA of 4.00. They gave up two games to last-place Northwestern, a team Purdue swept. They have allowed four teams to score 10 or more runs. They have won their series-opening Friday night game only one time out of four. In order for Nebraska to take back their legacy, they must correct those errors.
Nebraska is close. The want-to is there. That is evident. A series win over Purdue, who hasn't lost a series this year, would be huge. Watch out, Huskers, the Ghosts of 2005 will be watching in earnest.