March 23, 2012

Huskers set to begin first foray into the Big Ten

When Nebraska made the decision to join the Big Ten Conference in June two years ago, the first thoughts were about how the move would affect the football team.

Then fans moved on to considering how a Big Ten basketball slate would compare to that of the Big 12. Some even went so far as to compare volleyball schedules.

Baseball? In the Big Ten, it was an afterthought.

While the Huskers' new conference is a national power in many sports, baseball isn't one of them. The league is currently ranked 13th in RPI, behind lesser conferences such as the Southland and Western Athletic.

The last Big Ten team to ascend to college baseball's premium stage - the College World Series - was Michigan in 1984.

So when the Huskers left the much tougher Big 12, many assumed the new conference would be a cakewalk for the baseball team, despite its struggles last year.

Coach Darin Erstad is not buying it.

"I know everyone says, 'Oh, you're going to walk through the Big Ten,'" Erstad said. "I'll tell you right now, that's just not going to happen, especially if we don't come out and play consistently like we can. If we take care of our own business and come to play, we'll be very competitive."

The Huskers' first foray into Big Ten play (NU played Minnesota in a nonconference game earlier this year) begins today with a three-game series against Illinois. The Illini are 10-7 and have an RPI ranking of 61.

But Illinois is not to be overlooked. The Illini won the both the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament titles and knocked Cal State Fullerton out of its own regional last year.

"Their numbers look good across the board," Erstad said. They're very active on the bases. They can pitch. They can hit. They haven't gotten as many wins as they probably wanted yet, but they've got some very good players."

The Huskers may have learned a lesson Wednesday that will serve them well once league play starts. Nebraska fell 6-4 to Northern Colorado (6-9) in a game Erstad said he thought his team was overconfident for.

Given the reputation of the Big Ten, the Huskers may enter more series in which they are heavily favored. But outfielder Rich Sanguinetti said they won't fall into the same trap again.

"It's baseball. If you look at paper, that's not how the game's played," the junior said after Wednesday's loss. "It doesn't matter who you play. Anyone has a chance to win the game. We've got to come out and do what we've been doing all season. Today didn't show it, but we're going to work hard and come into Friday confident but still hungry."

And of course, there's the "new guy" factor. As Nebraska teams in other sports have seen, Big Ten teams have looked for opportunities to push the newcomer around and show them who's boss.

"They're all going to be gunning for us," Erstad said. "Nobody wants us to come into this conference and do well. We're going to have to play well. It's all on us."

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