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May 26, 2014

Return to regional shows how far NU has come

When senior pitcher Zach Hirsch awoke Monday morning, he didn't know exactly how he was supposed to feel. His first four years at Nebraska had yielded varying levels of success, but never enough to where the Huskers would be playing in the postseason. But at 40-19, NU was all but assured of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.

"I've never been in this position - none of these guys have," Hirsch said. "To wake up and know that there was a good chance of us being in a regional was very exciting."

The dream became official a few hours later as it was announced that the Huskers are headed to Stillwater, Okla., this week. Joining the Huskers are Oklahoma State, Binghamton and Cal State Fullerton, which the Huskers will face in their opening game Friday at 1 p.m. NU is the No. 2 seed.

"It's fun to see us back where we need to be," senior outfielder Michael Pritchard said. "Getting a two seed shows us how far we've come. As a two seed, you know you're a top 30 team in the country and you know where you stand."

The moment was especially rewarding for the team's seniors, particularly those like Pritchard, Hirsch and Luke Bublitz, who have all been with the program for the past four or five seasons (Hirsch redshirted in 2010, Bublitz in 2011). Back in 2011, the Huskers finished 30-25 and didn't even make the Big 12 Tournament.

The team got progressively better and came within one game of making the tournament field last season. But to final get over the hump made the moment all the more satisfying.

"We've been through the ups and the downs and probably the lowest part of this program," Pritchard said. "My freshman year (2011) was probably as low as it gets. Getting back in the tournament is something you dream of doing. I would have loved to do it as a freshman, but it didn't work. Getting here is special and you can't take away anything from this group of guys."

But coach Darin Erstad didn't come to Nebraska with the mindset that this would be a step-by-step approach. When he took over following the 2012 season, Erstad understood that there would be some growing pains, but he wanted results immediately.

"The second we got here we were trying to make it all the way," Erstad said. "I don't believe in that step thing. Why would we ever set our bar so low that you put yourself in that situation? I want our guys to expect to go to Omaha every single year and win every year. If you don't have that mindset, you're in the wrong place."

Nebraska's draw isn't an easy one. Cal State Fullerton finished just 32-22 but has won 10 of its past 12 games and will likely send ace Justin Garza (2.51 ERA, 56 strikeouts, 13 walks) to the mound against the Huskers. Nebraska was swept in four games against the Titans in 2013.

Oklahoma State is no slouch, either. The Cowboys finished 45-16 and were 22-8 at home. They hit 49 home runs as a team and swept Nebraska in a doubleheader last season.

While the road ahead may be daunting, the Huskers aren't sweating it right now. They will take moment to savor the feeling of finally reaching college baseball's second season, but their work is far from done.

"All you've got to do is get your foot in the door and anything can happen," Erstad said. "This is the ultimate bonus baseball. Right now everybody is a good team. It all boils down to who gets hot with the bats. Everybody can pitch and play defense, and whoever gets hot with the bats makes runs in these situations."

Christian DeLeon update

Nebraska ace Christian DeLeon hasn't pitched in a game since April 25 due to arm soreness. Erstad said his status remains day-to-day and that if he is used in the regional, it likely won't be a long, nine-inning outing.

"He still hasn't spun any breaking balls or thrown his off-speed stuff off the mound," Erstad said. "There's an outside chance we could use him in some form over the weekend. That's going to depend how he comes back tomorrow after throwing today off the mound. We'll see where it's at. Like I told him, there's no pressure on him. If you're ready, you're ready. If you're not, you're not. I'm not going to put a kid out there if he's not ready. That's not how I do things."

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