Nebraska baseball coach Darin Erstad never played at Bricktown Ballpark, either as a collegiate player or professional.
However, his volunteer assistant coach, Curtis Ledbetter, has. And Erstad earlier this week overhead Ledbetter, a former Husker, telling some current Nebraska players about his fond memories of playing in downtown Oklahoma City.
Good times, that place has produced for Nebraska, and its droves of fans.
When Ledbetter was a senior, in 2005, the Huskers won their final of four Big 12 Tournament championships at Bricktown, which still hosts the annual tournament for Nebraska’s former conference.
In fact, you can trace the beginning of Nebraska’s rise onto the national scene in the early 2000s to the Huskers’ first Big 12 Tournament title there, 20 years ago, with a 4-3 championship-game victory over Baylor. That landed the Huskers their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1985, and fourth in school history, and marked the first of four straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
Nebraska won the next two Big 12 Tournament championships, too, with the Huskers advancing in the postseason a step further each time, culminating with the program’s first College World Series appearance in 2001.
“I know a lot about some of the magic in that building that the Husker baseball program has had,” Erstad told reporters Wednesday, “so I’m hoping they left a little bit there that we can bottle.”
Nebraska will collect what it can Friday, when the Huskers face Connecticut at noon in the first game of the Oklahoma City Regional at Bricktown Ballpark. Top-seed Oklahoma State is the host, but the Cowboys’ home stadium in Stillwater is unplayable because of recent heavy rains.
Erstad is hoping a little nostalgia – and a lot of Husker fan support – can help the Huskers turn their recent NCAA Tournament fortunes. Nebraska missed the 64-team field last season, and went 0-2 in regional appearances in 2016 and 2017.
“We have every intention,” Erstad said, “of going down and winning that sucker.”
While current players have heard Ledbetter’s talk of Bricktown magic, they’re counting on their recent conference tournament success at another ballpark – one a lot closer to home – for continued momentum and motivation.
Nebraska (31-22) solidified its position in the NCAA Tournament with a runner-up finish in the Big Ten Tournament at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, which is also the host of next month’s College World Series.
Nebraska junior pitcher Robbie Palkert said he still gets chills when he watches video of the Huskers playing before a partisan Husker crowd.
“We had a chance to see what Omaha looks like in a championship setting with 17,000 people watching you,” Palkert said. “That’s a cool, cool experience. We’re all thirsty for that again.
“We have nothing to lose. Everybody’s playing for their lives. Everything is right in front of you. We’re going out there to compete our butts off.”
Erstad expects nothing less from his team. He also expects a similar fight from UConn, which earned the No. 2 seed over No. 3 Nebraska with a higher RPI.
“They’ve got a very scrappy team, they play hard, very fundamentally sound, they put a lot of pressure on you,” Erstad said. “It’s two very scrappy teams going at it.”
UConn (36-23) is in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time since 2000. In 2011, the Huskies advanced to a Super Regional but lost to South Carolina. They went 0-2 in regional play last season.
UConn last went to the CWS in 1979 – and defeated Nebraska 15-0 in the Northeastern Regional play to get there, the only time these programs have met. This is the Huskies’ mere ninth NCAA Tournament appearance since then.
Left-hander Mason Feole will start for UConn. He’s 3-3 with a 3.50 ERA, has struck out 75 and walked 43. Opponents are hitting .233. A highlight of Feole’s nasty curveball has already made the social media rounds.
“We have to grind it out,” Nebraska senior infielder Angelo Altivilla said. “We have to do what we do best, and that’s getting walks and doing everything we can to get on base. He’s still human. He’s going to make mistakes. It will be up to us to capitalize on those.”
Erstad wouldn’t yet name a Friday starter.
“I’ve got a nice, long 6 ½-hour bus ride with a bunch of detours to figure that out,” he quipped.
As a whole, Erstad believes his team can still play better. And what better time to begin peaking than the NCAA Tournament?
“There have been spots and moments where guys have done some stuff, but I don’t think we’ve sustained what we’re capable of doing through a whole weekend,” Erstad said.
“They compete and they’re not scared for the moment. Those are good qualities to have. And they’ve kind of seasoned themselves in postseason baseball. It looks like they kind of thrive in this kind of environment. That being said, it’s a whole new animal this weekend.”
Palkert saw that animal up close in his first two years in the program, when Nebraska went a combined 0-4 in NCAA Regional play.
“I don’t want to sit here and talk about the last couple of years, but it’s definitely frustrating,” he said of the Huskers’ quick exits in the 2016 and 2017 tournaments.
“I felt mostly for the old guys. Now that I’m one of the older guys, I don’t want that to happen. That’s such a crappy feeling to watch guys like Taylor Fish, Jeff Chesnut in front of me, sit there and cry after their last baseball game. That’s terrible. I don’t want that to happen for the seniors ahead of me right now, either.”
Palkert is confident it won’t at Bricktown Ballpark.
“There have been times where we’ve fallen into that trap, where we may overlook a team because we’re looking at the one seed,” he said. “But this year, that’s definitely not going to happen. We’re attacking every game as if it’s our last.”
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