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LINCOLN — The immediate detail on the painting is striking.
Nebraska baseball stood Husker-to-Hog with the nation’s No. 1 team for three nights, injecting life into an NU fan base whose support too often goes unrequited in terms of success from its favorite teams.
Zoom out to the full canvas and consider the portrait coach Will Bolt and his team are beginning to fill in. Note the game-to-game toughness, the constant offensive aggression and the striking "it means more" emotional swagger of these Huskers, and you see a Big Ten frontrunner emerging. A potential northern light in a college baseball constellation that sorely needs the sport to emerge from its southern dominance.
An improving Nebraska can be the tide that lifts multiple boats. That was the idea when the Huskers joined the Big Ten in 2011. NU, veteran of a rugged Big 12, was supposed to steamroll its new league and give the rest of the conference a clue of how it’s done.
Urban Meyer did that in a very different and more dramatic way when he arrived at Ohio State. Meyer entered a sleepy league, shook it, and made it a giant. He broke league furniture and manners, and didn’t care who it bothered. He forced the league to adjust — it never did, but it got much better — and the Big Ten’s great awakening plays a role in Nebraska football’s on-field struggles.
It’s far too early to give Bolt that kind of credit. It takes year-over-year excellence, and it’ll take a commitment from the conference that was shockingly absent in 2021. The Big Ten rolled over on its own baseball teams in mid-February, choosing to embrace a league-only schedule for an outdoor sport.
This was when the league surely assumed it’d make up half of the Final Four in men’s hoops and win a national title in volleyball. Neither of those things happened. In men’s hockey, UMass and three teams from Minnesota made the Frozen Four. None of them had a Gopher for their mascot.
Husker baseball was back on the national stage Monday, pushing the No. 1 team in the country against the ropes on their own field. It hasn’t felt that way in a long, long time.
So it shouldn’t be a big surprise that Big Ten baseball was a flop, aside from Nebraska. Three teams got NCAA tournament bids, and Michigan coach Eric Bakich — in lambasting league leadership — said he wouldn’t have blamed the committee if his team had been left out. The Wolverines showed themselves the door quickly in blowout losses to UConn and Central Michigan. Maryland reached its regional final but didn't advance.
Meanwhile, Nebraska — clearly one of the better teams in the country — got sent to No. 1 Arkansas by a selection committee whose chairman repeatedly had to check his own talking points to answer a question. Didn’t have to happen. Shouldn’t have happened.
But it did, and NU was subjected to one of the toughest home crowds in college baseball. There were about nine people in the stands at Oregon’s regional. At Arkansas, standing room only. Hostility.
And Nebraska just didn’t care. It hasn’t all year, through every bad hand dealt. Its confidence cut through the June nights and the pig calls. When Jaxon Hallmark hit that opening home run Sunday night, he came to home plate, stomped angrily on it, and took off his batting helmet. He then held the helmet out to the crowd. He invited the boos and heckling.
That identity is portable from team to team, year to year. Nebraska can bottle it up, a must to run with the SEC. If you’ve watched any college baseball this year — or in any recent year — you can tell the sport fancies itself a party down south that’s right on the verge of chaos at any time.
If NU can thrive there, it can thrive anywhere. The Big Ten rolled over on itself in 2021, but in the process may have awakened the program best positioned to dominate.
The league needs a leader. In Nebraska, it may have one.
The Arkansas coach who took Nebraska to the College World Series twice in the early 2000s praised NU’s effort after Monday’s game. Certainly, he said, they didn't look like an ordinary No. 2 seed.