For Luke Jessen, it all started in the backyard.
In the blistering Nebraska heat, Jessen and his father, Blake, spent countless hours outside where the soft thud of the baseball smacking into the glove provided the soundtrack to their work. During the winter, father and son moved into the garage, hitting off a tee into the net.
Here, working on drills with his dad — a former Division III player who set the single-season on-base percentage record in 1993 as a senior for Central College in Pella, Iowa — a spark ignited within Jessen.
“I fell in love with the game as a young kid, and that’s never changed,” Jessen said.
His successful competitive career began at age 4 pitching and playing first base. When he was 12, he won a youth championship. As a freshman, he won a junior varsity state championship. During his sophomore year, his summer team traveled to a tournament in Atlanta and recorded a top-15 finish out of around 400 teams.
Now at Elkhorn South High School, Jessen plays outfield. Two years ago, during the fall of his sophomore year, he started getting attention on the recruiting trail, speaking with Nebraska’s head baseball coach Darin Erstad’s staff. That winter, Jessen landed his first offer from Wichita State.
Things slowed down for the next few months, but when spring rolled around, momentum on the recruiting trail picked up. Aside from Wichita State, notable teams on Jessen’s list included Creighton, Michigan State, Kansas State, Houston, Missouri, Oregon and Nebraska.
During the summer of 2019, the winds of change blew through Lincoln. On June 3, Erstad resigned to spend more time with his family. On June 14, the Huskers tabbed Will Bolt as Erstad’s replacement.
With a new era of Nebraska baseball dawning, Jessen bought in. He committed to the Huskers on Sept. 13.
“I love the coaching staff,” Jessen said. “I got along with all of them really well, and I felt like we could do something special in Lincoln if I got me and a few others to go down there.”
Jessen isn’t the only Nebraska product who believes in Bolt’s vision. Of the 14 prospects in the 2021 recruiting class, nine are in-state players. In particular, Bolt and his staff found success with the top Nebraska talent; seven of the state’s top 10 prospects pledged to the Huskers.
“I think Husker baseball is going to be doing a lot of great things in the next few years, and I think they’re doing a good job letting all the other guys know that’s going to happen,” Jessen said.
It’s not just one program producing a lot of talent, either. Six schools contributed to Nebraska baseball’s top in-state prospects; Elkhorn South, Elkhorn, Millard West, Millard South, Norris and Lincoln Southwest. Of those, Elkhorn is the only one with more than one top prospect committed to the Huskers
Elkhorn’s head coach, Kyle McCright, has led his team to a successful run since taking over in 2016. The Antlers won the Class B state title during McCright’s first season and then reached the state tournament again in each of the next three seasons before the pandemic cancelled the tournament last year.
McCright, who coaches both varsity and Legion teams in Elkhorn, has long been a figure in Nebraska baseball, playing high school ball at Columbus in the early 2000s and collegiately at Midland in Fremont. He took a job as an assistant at Elkhorn for a season in 2009 before becoming the junior varsity head coach, a position he held until becoming the head coach in 2016.
McCright said he didn’t initially plan on coaching or teaching because his sister was a teacher. However, after spending some time job shadowing, he decided coaching felt natural.
“It’s fun to enjoy the game and be outside,” he said. “The painted lines, the sunshine — everything like that is relaxing. It doesn’t feel like work.”
This year, the Antlers feature four Division I commits: right-handed pitcher Drew Christo and third baseman Kyler Randazzo pledged to Nebraska, while another pair of right-handers — Malakai Vetock and junior Benjamin Ayala — committed to Creighton.
Fewer than five miles away, head coach Brandon Dahl has Elkhorn South on a roll. Like McCright, Dahl is a Nebraska lifer, having played at Millard West High School and the University of Nebraska Omaha. Hired in 2013, Dahl successfully guided Elkhorn South’s transition from Class B to Class A in 2018, and the Storm have made the state tournament every year since 2015.
Jessen is Elkhorn South’s lone Nebraska commit, but the Storm have several other players committed to play collegiately. Notably, catcher Hogan Helligso committed to Creighton while a pair of sophomores pledged to SEC schools — Cole Eaton to Tennessee and Eli Small to Kentucky.
In 2018, Elkhorn South became the second-smallest Class A school after it transitioned from Class B. Despite the move, the program found continued success, reaching the Class A state tournament during its debut season. In 2019, Elkhorn South went 19-3 and was the No. 1 seed in the state tournament.
“We’re also a closed district, so kids can’t opt into our school,” Dahl said. “They have to live within our boundary. Being the second-smallest school in Class A and not being an open-enrollment school, that’s something we’re pretty proud about.”
Another Nebraska school producing Division I talent is Millard West. The Wildcats have made the state tournament 13 consecutive years and won the Class A title in 2019 under head coach Steven Frey, McCright’s predecessor at Elkhorn, who came to Millard West in 2016.
Max Anderson, a freshman infielder for the Huskers, played at Millard West before starting all 15 games for Nebraeska in 2021, batting .321 with two doubles, four home runs and 15 runs batted in. He’s also drawn eight walks with only nine strikeouts for a .400 on-base percentage.
In future recruiting classes, two of Anderson’s former teammates are slated to join him in Lincoln — right-handed pitcher Corbin Hawkins and junior righty Sam Novotny.
The Wildcats’ roster features a Kansas State commit and a pair of juniors pledged to Creighton. Nebraska baseball’s current recruiting class also features Millard South’s Matthew Guthmiller and Lincoln Southwest’s Max Peterson.
According to Lincoln Southwest head coach Mitchell Vernon, in his fifth year with the team and 12th overall, the biggest change between now and a decade ago is how hard players are throwing the ball.
“I think you see it in pro baseball right now, everybody’s chasing velocity off the bump and the trickle-down effect is definitely taking shape in high school baseball in Nebraska,” he said. “There’s so many guys throwing so much harder than I ever remember as a whole across the state.”
With talent scattered across Nebraska, baseball’s reputation as a warm-weather sport appears to be changing. One reason could be that an increasing number of training facilities in areas like the Midwest helps narrow the talent gap between places like Nebraska and Texas and makes it easier to offset the weather disadvantage in Midwestern states, according to McCright.
Dahl and Frey both pinpointed an increasing number of travel teams within Nebraska as another reason for the improved state of play.
“When I first started, there were no travel teams whatsoever,” Frey said. “They’re playing a lot more. A lot of the kids who are playing aren’t really kids who are burning out. They love baseball, they love having the chance to play somewhere, and a lot of our teams, these kids are playing teams across the country where I think they’re realizing they’re just as good as some of these other players.”
Another factor could be the prominence of Legion baseball in Nebraska, which provides another opportunity for players aged 13-19 to compete. The program, founded by the American Legion in 1925 as a way to further its commitment to community service, receives a significant amount of funding from Major League Baseball; more than half of the current MLB players participated in Legion baseball at some point.
“Legion baseball has always been king,” Dahl said. “The summer stuff is starting to get a little bit bigger, but I also think they can both intermix together with how much talent is in the state.”
Legion baseball is especially popular in Nebraska, where more than 290 junior and senior teams across the state competed in 2017. In addition to its popularity, Vernon said Legion baseball is useful in helping recruit players. That’s because the high school and college seasons run concurrently during the spring, forcing collegiate coaches to focus more on their own seasons than on recruiting.
“They keep their eyes open and they’re looking for guys, but they don’t get the chance to go see them until the summertime,” Vernon said. “That’s when a lot of contact is being made as far as recruits go.
Perhaps the biggest positive to Legion baseball is providing an opportunity for players at schools that don’t sponsor baseball to compete in some capacity. Nebraska has 67 school-sponsored teams, all of which are in either Class A or Class B. For kids from smaller schools, Legion baseball is their only chance to play.
Alliance is one of many schools across the state with Legion baseball but no high school team. The team’s head coach, Carlos Palomo, is also the head coach of the school-sponsored softball team.
Palomo noted that almost every school with a sponsored team is in the eastern half of the state. Maxwell — which combines with St. Patrick High School in North Platte for baseball — and Kearney are the two westernmost high school teams in the state. Each of the remaining 65 teams is located east of Kearney.
Because the western half of Nebraska is almost exclusively Legion teams, the program has a massive impact on students’ ability to compete there — many of whom are multi-sport athletes.
Additionally, the Legion season is longer than the high school baseball season, which Vernon said consists of around 30 games. In contrast, Legion teams play around 45 games before any postseason tournaments, according to Palomo.
“Our Legion, our summer ball, is a grind,” he said. “It’s very busy, but it’s a tough dynamic to address too with the western part of the state having only Legion, and then you play a lot of those teams in the east if you make it to the postseason, a lot of those kids have been playing since February or March.”