It took a flashback to Will Bolt’s old Big 12 glory days, and a helping of his SEC-style coaching tenacity to give Nebraska a sip of rare Big Ten wine.
At the turn of the century, Bolt, a gritty second baseman from Conroe, Texas, helped Nebraska find its way to its first-ever College World Series appearances. He started four years and became a captain on the Huskers’ 2001 and 2002 CWS squads. He returned as a graduate assistant and was part of the 2005 CWS team.
On June 14, 2019, athletic director Bill Moos hired Bolt as head coach after a six-year stint at Texas A&M under Rob Childress, where he showed plenty of his trademark gumption as offensive game coordinator. Less than two years later, the hire paid dividends when the unrated Cornhuskers bagged what has proved to be an exceedingly elusive quarry in the past decade — a conference championship in a men’s team sport.
Nebraska nailed down the title by beating third-place Indiana and Ohio State two times apiece in one of the weekend “pods” the Big Ten scheduled to accommodate a 44-game regular season by Memorial Day weekend. The finishing touch was a 9-0 win over Ohio State, who beat the Huskers in the Big Ten Tournament title game in Omaha in 2019, Darin Erstad’s final season as NU coach. Nebraska smacked the Buckeyes around with five runs in the first inning, then methodically stretched their lead while five Huskers pitched scoreless ball and the team followed the progress of fourth-place Maryland’s 7-3 win over second-place Michigan in Ann Arbor, which (coupled with the Huskers’ win Sunday) mathematically eliminated the Wolverines from the race.
On Sunday, Bolt’s Huskers improved their record to 29-11 and extended their winning streak to eight games by sweeping four from Indiana and Ohio State at Bart Kaufman Field in Bloomington to clinch their second Big Ten baseball title in five seasons.
“We came into the weekend wanting to prove that we’re the best team in the conference,” coach Will Bolt told the Husker Sports Network after the game. “The way it played out was perfect.”
While most other Big Ten schools continue to allow only family members in the ballpark, the Huskers have opened their home games to all fans. Next weekend, they will draw more than 5,000 per game when they host Michigan — a team with fresh memories of its run to the CWS finals in 2019, and has been rated in the Top 25 much of the season — in a series that had been widely expected to decide the conference race. Now it will merely help settle each team’s NCAA Regional destination.
Will the NCAA penalize Nebraska for its Big Ten title by sending the Huskers to the Fayetteville Regional against top seed Arkansas, as D1 Baseball has been projecting the last month? It would match Bolt against Dave Van Horn, his old head coach at Nebraska. If so, it would be an indictment of the Big Ten Council of Presidents / Chancellors, which (in the latest of a series of hotly debated coronavirus scheduling decisions) earlier this year handicapped its baseball and softball teams by voting to bar its schools from nonconference play, denying them a chance to build a respectable RPI. It also would be a king-sized slap in the face to a Husker program that has come from nowhere to regain a taste of its past success.
Nebraska narrowly missed Big 12 conference titles in football under Bo Pelini when it blew second-half championship game leads to Texas (2009) and Oklahoma (2010), then moved to the Big Ten and got walloped by Wisconsin in the 2012 championship game. Since then, it has often looked outclassed on the gridiron. In basketball, the Huskers are the only remaining Power Five school to never win an NCAA Tournament game. In the past 42 months, Moos hired Scott Frost, Fred Hoiberg and Bolt — three coaches with Nebraska connections and good national reputations — to repair the school’s deteriorating reputation.
Bolt found success his first full season in Lincoln by building the kind of resilient, team-first mindset that Frost is still trying to achieve in his fourth season as Husker football coach. Right fielder and leadoff hitter Joe Acker (.278 batting average, 24 walks, 25 RBI) came back for an extra COVID-enabled “super senior” season and teamed with center fielder Jaxson Hallmark (.343, 57 hits, 42 runs,15 steals), first baseman/catcher Luke Roskam (.314, 8 HR, 29 walks, 33 RBI) and slick-fielding shortstop Spencer Schwellenbach to provide leadership for the Huskers, who are getting a sterling freshman season from third baseman Max Anderson (.341, 7 doubles, 6 HR, 30 RBI) and have a solid starting trio in Cade Povich (5-1, 3.12 ERA, 70 strikeouts, 18 walks), Chance Hroch (5-1, 4.08, 55 strikeouts, 13 walks) and Shay Schanaman (4-2, 5.91, 62 strikeouts, 22 walks).
Schwellenbach, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound two-way playing senior from Saginaw, Michigan, who’s batting .295 with six homers, eight steals and 35 RBI, may be a better pro prospect as a pitcher. He has a fastball in the high 90s, respectable breaking stuff and has recorded seven saves and a 0.75 ERA as the Husker closer, often after a hurried bullpen warmup session squeezed in while his team is at bat.
Bolt took over in 2020 for Erstad, the former Nebraska All-American and Anaheim Angels World Series champion. The Huskers were 7-8 when COVID-19 halted the season in March. As a player, Bolt’s teams won four consecutive Big 12 championships. In his first head coaching role, Bolt led Texarkana College to National Junior College Athletic Association national titles in 2009 and 2010. His Husker teams play the type of aggressive, small ball-based attack that Van Horn’s Husker teams did during their three CWS runs.
Despite its success, Nebraska has been flying under the radar all season. Noticeably absent from the top six conference teams in a preseason poll by the Big Ten coaches, the Huskers played Bolt-style “gritty, not pretty” baseball to win a school-record seven consecutive series and finally sneak into the Top 25.
Then came an unexpected setback — Rutgers came into Haymarket Park and swept the Huskers, who immediately reverted to unrated status. Bolt met with team captains Joe Acker and Jaxon Hallmark, who agreed that no major course corrections were necessary. With their ranking gone, they re-committed to Bolt’s “show up and work every day” mantra, and beat Rutgers twice in Piscataway two weeks later, including an epic 13-inning win that Hallmark saved by cutting down a Rutgers baserunner at home plate.