LINCOLN — It won't take long for Nebraska baseball coach Darin Erstad to know which players he'll be relying on in crunch time.
That's what a nonconference schedule full of talented opponents will provide. It's an instant litmus test for a rebuilding Husker program, which Erstad is determined to again mold into one of the nation's annual contenders.
By April, he'll have a clear progress report. And it will be evident which guys are ready for the spotlight.
“There's no sugar-coating stuff or hiding things that you have on the field,” Erstad said. “We are going to find out who's ready to play big-boy baseball.”
The Huskers opened preseason practice at Haymarket Park on Friday, able to conduct batting practice and game-like scrimmages in 50-degree weather during a sunny afternoon. They have three weeks to prepare for opening day Feb. 15, when the unrelenting challenges begin.
NU plays No. 22 Cal State Fullerton on its first weekend of regular-season action before hosting No. 21 New Mexico in March and No. 3 Arkansas in April. Nebraska also travels to Texas and UC Irvine for weekend series.
There's plenty for the Huskers to figure out before then, though.
They need to find a catcher — redshirt freshman Taylor Fish, junior Corey Stringer and sophomore Tanner Lubach are all working at that spot. Someone has to emerge at shortstop — senior Bryan Peters, freshman Jake Placzek and freshman Wes Edrington are the candidates.
A pitching staff that was inconsistent last year has new faces — four freshmen (Jeff Chesnut, Mike Hadden, Colton Howell and Logan Thune) and four junior college transfers (Christian DeLeon, Caleb Hawkins, Michael Hoppes and Josh Roeder). But specific jobs are still up for grabs, and the veterans are eager to redefine their roles.
Junior Brandon Pierce was one of nine pitchers who started a game last season for the Huskers, who had the Big Ten's eighth-best ERA (4.40).
“Nothing is handed out here,” Pierce said. “We have a game in three weeks. That is three weeks to prove what you can do.”
The coaches certainly will work to keep them motivated. There's a daily expectation level that the players maybe didn't understand last year, Erstad said. But he said it started to sink in during fall practice, which featured just one unsatisfactory session.
Everyone's on the same page now, as the players continue to absorb the mindset of Nebraska's resolute and confident coach.
Reinserting the program into the national scene isn't an overnight project, but the Huskers aren't afraid to act like they're not too far off.
Nebraska finished fourth in the Big Ten last year, going 35-23 overall and missing the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year. Senior Chad Christensen said the team isn't limiting its goals, though.
“(Regionals) are on our minds every single day we come out here,” he said. “That's what we all want.”
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