This Friday, Feb. 14, marks the beginning of a new era for Nebraska baseball under head coach Will Bolt, a team captain for Nebraska during its two College World Series runs in 2001 and 2002, in his first year as a head coach for a Division I program.
Bolt is coming to Nebraska from Texas A&M where he was an assistant coach from 2015-19. Earlier in Bolt’s career, he was also an assistant coach for Nebraska in 2005 and from 2012-14. Returning to Nebraska has him and his new team thrilled to get the season started.
“We’re all excited, you know, we’ve had three weeks to get prepared and our guys have been very focused,” Bolt said to the media Wednesday afternoon. “We’re chomping at the bit at it.”
Nebraska is coming off of a 32-24 season that ended abruptly in the Oklahoma State regional of the 2019 NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament after winning seven of its last 10 games. During this run, Nebraska beat the NCAA runner-up Michigan three times and made an appearance in the Big Ten Conference Championship against the Ohio State Buckeyes falling short 3-1.
Michigan, who lost a three game series 2-1 versus Vanderbilt in the National Championship, was the first Big Ten team in the College World Series Final since Ohio State won it all in 1966. Michigan’s success has Nebraska confident that it can make a run and possibly do the same thing.
“Just seeing what a team can do when they got hot at the right time, knowing that if we can do that, just peak at the right time, then we can do what Michigan did and even more,” junior right fielder Aaron Palensky said.
Nebraska will try to get back into the postseason this year and have a shot to play in the College World Series for the first time since 2005. With plenty of experience and production returning for the Nebraska squad, this seems to be a likely possibility. Nebraska will return 84 percent of its hits, 83 percent of its home runs and 82 percent of its RBIs from its team last season, according to Huskers.com.
Among the returning production from last season’s Nebraska team is Palensky who led the team in hits, batting average and home runs hitting .320 with 71 hits and seven home runs.
Although Palensky had an incredible first year as a Husker, he isn’t concerned with individual success.
“I’m trying to focus as least individually as I can as possible,” Palensky said. “I’m trying to focus on the team as much as I can, you know, more wins is better.”
Palensky’s focus on the team comes with a lot of confidence in how much his teammates has improved at the plate this offseason.
“I think we can be very dangerous because this offseason we’ve had multiple guys become way more powerful and way more consistent finding more barrels,” the junior from Papillion, Neb., said. “They’ve really put a lot of work in, and I’m really excited to see what they can do.”
While Nebraska is returning a lot of its production at the plate from last season, it will look to find three new starting pitchers as the entire starting rotation from last season graduated. Bolt announced that the rotation is set and includes Gareth Stroh, Colby Gomes and Cade Povich.
Stroh is a fifth year senior transfer from Purdue with a 10-6 record as a starting pitcher and has two years of Big Ten experience under his belt. He will be starting in Nebraska’s season opener because Bolt has loved what he’s seen from him since this summer.
“We’ve seen pretty much what we needed to see and his numbers from the summer were pretty astounding honestly,” Bolt said about the left-handed pitcher.
Another new face starting on the mound this Sunday for Nebraska is left-handed junior college transfer Cade Povich, a player Nebraska added to its roster very soon after Bolt arrived in Lincoln.
When asked why he was attracted to Povich, Bolt noted that his stats were a big factor.
“The 10-1 record was pretty impressive in junior college,” Bolt said. “He had good command, he didn’t walk a lot of guys, he had a strikeout an inning and he had like eight complete games so you know he’s been pretty efficient in his outings.”
The third and final starter is right-handed sophomore Colby Gomes. While Gomes isn’t a new face on the Nebraska baseball team, he is new to the starting rotation as he represented the back-end of the Huskers bullpen last season.
“The hardest part is definitely keeping my velocity where it needs to be for more than one inning and being able to throw all my pitches for strikes every pitch,” Gomes said.
Gomes boasts 13 saves from last season and was thrown into the fire early as he had to pitch at the end of many big games in just his first year at Nebraska. Gomes is ready for anything this season and he isn’t letting his first year success get in his head.
“Being blessed enough to play as much as I did last year really helps me with knowing what to expect and not letting any moment get too big,” Gomes said. “Confidence is a part of it, but definitely not cockiness.”
The tall right-hander from Omaha, Neb. can reach speeds up to and above 95 mph with his dominant fastball accompanied by a changeup, slider and curveball.
With three talented game-ready starting pitchers set to throw this weekend at Baylor, Bolt hopes to have the starting pitching situation figured out as soon as possible.
“Hopefully one weekend. I mean, in a perfect world that’s where we’re at. We don’t really have the luxury of kind of finding our way through it,” Bolt said.
Outside of the three starting pitchers at Baylor, Bolt seems to have a good idea where his pitching staff is at right now.
“It’s an inexact science, you know we don’t know what’s gonna happen, but I feel like we’ve got a pretty good idea who our top eight are right now,” Bolt said.
That top eight will include returning relief pitcher Shay Schanaman who appeared in 19 games last season and recorded a 3.18 ERA. Schanaman is very confident in himself going into this season and is feeling better than he did last year.
“I feel better, I feel like I can go longer and bounce back quicker,” the right-handed Schanaman said. “Just with what I do every day, and focusing on the little things like I said, yeah, I feel like a better pitcher this year.”
The new coaching staff brings new ideas, a new way of looking at things and a lot of excitement. Returning starting center fielder Joe Acker echoed this excitement Thursday afternoon just before boarding the flight to Waco.
“This new staff is young and brings a lot of great energy and is super relatable in the regard that they can better understand a little bit of what goes on in our lives outside of baseball,” Acker said.
The new coaching staff also brings plenty of new faces on the roster with a completely different coaching staff, so it is important the team keeps its chemistry and everybody remains on an even playing field, working as hard as they can. Seniors like Acker have helped with this difficult transition.
“I have taken on a leadership role for sure but the way I lead is through leading by example,” the senior from Wisconsin said. “Guys look to me not so much for everyday baseball advice and critique but rather how to conduct your business and how you handle stuff on and off the field.”
Acker isn’t the only one who has taken on the role of trying to make this transition as easy as possible. Palensky is another returning starter who is doing his best to lead by his actions, not his words.
“I really like to try to lead by example, I’m not the most vocal guy I would say, but the way I try to lead is with my work ethic,” Palensky said.
Palensky and Acker aren’t the only returning starters in the Nebraska outfield this season, with senior Mojo Hagge out of Omaha, Neb. looking to finish his Huskers career strong. The outfield will prove to be one of the deepest position groups for Nebraska this season, and that is not limited to its three starters.
“Even if one of us wouldn’t be able to play I still think I’d be comfortable in the outfield with Carter Cross, Mike Adante or Andrew Mackey,” Palensky said.
The new era starting has Huskers fans buzzing with enthusiasm. While Division I baseball has Nebraska projected to place sixth in the Big Ten and to come up short from a regional bid, the faithful fans are confident in the new coach coming back to the program he’s both played and coached for.
Still, nobody is as confident in what this team can do than the players themselves, especially Joe Acker.
“Nobody has higher expectations for our squad and myself than us as a team and myself,” the starting center fielder said. “Our expectations are to be the last team standing at the end of the year.”