It all starts with pitching, and if you do not believe that, just take a look at the most significant change in the Nebraska baseball program this year – the addition of Rob Childress as pitching coach. Childress is the best pitching coach in Nebraska baseball history, as is evident from this list: Komine, Spiehs, Rodrique, Ott, Duensing, Shirek, Marsden, Kroenke, Watson, Jensen, Dorn, Chamberlain. Toss in the 16 years that he skippered the Aggies at Texas A&M, plus everything else that he has done in the sport, one must recognize that this is the right guy at the right time to elevate Nebraska pitching to the top of the Big Ten Conference and to a level where the team once against competes at the national level.
There are a number of question marks with this staff, due in large part to fourteen new pitchers and a degree of uncertainty about those who return. Who are going to be the starters? Will there be quality arms to win midweek games? Is there an intimidator that can come in and shut teams down in the ninth? Will our pitchers challenge hitters and pitch aggressively? All of these are going to be answered soon as Nebraska will take on Baylor a week from Friday in Arlington, TX at the Shriner’s Children’s Showdown at the home of the World Series Champion Texas Rangers.
Let’s take a look at who’s gone, who’s back, and who’s new, and try to figure out what we will see from the Nebraska pitching staff this season.
Goodbye and Hello!
Gone: Shay Schanaman, Jake Bunz, C.J. Hood, Emmett Olson, Corbin Hawkins, J.C. Gutierrez, Sam Novotny, Will Rizzo, Mason Ornelas, Michael Garza, Jace Kaminska
New Faces: Mason McConnaughey (So), Ty Horn (Fr), Brooks Kneifl (Fr), Grant Cleavinger (So), Robby Olsen (Gr), Rans Sanders (Sr), Kyle Froelich (Sr), Ryan Harrahill (Fr), Evan Borst (Jr), Noah Madsen (Fr), Tucker Timmerman (Fr), Ian Regal (Fr), Carson Jasa (Fr), Casey Daiss (Jr)
Back: Will Walsh (rJr), Jackson Brackett (Jr), Brett Sears (Sr), Caleb Clark (So), Drew Christo (Jr), Kyle Perry (Gr), Jalen Worthley (So), Trey Frahm (rJr)
And On the Mound Tonight . . .
When it comes to starting pitching, Will Bolt and Rob Childress have their work cut out for them. Emmett Olson is pitching in the Marlins organization. Jace Kaminska finds himself working in the minors for the Colorado Rockies. Jake Bunz, who was injured most of last year, has moved on to Florida Gulf Coast.
There is no big dog on the current staff, or at least it does not appear to be one, until someone emerges. The two with the most starting experience are Will Walsh and Jackson Brockett, left-handers that were both Sunday starters for a period of time last season. Walsh came on strong at the end of the season, highlighted by the complete game shutout of Michigan State in the B1G tournament. Brockett had a good start to his 2023 season, but struggle with his command on the backend of the schedule. Kyle Perry has some starting experience, but in all likelihood will come from the bullpen again this year.
Based on summer performance and what has been shared by the team, one has to believe that Drew Christo and Brett Sears will be given heavy consideration as weekend starters. Christo had a strong summer and in his starting performance against Omaha in the fall, he looks to have turned the page and is most certainly in the conversation for one of the three weekend spots. The same can be said for Sears, a righty that dominated in the Northwoods League this summer and is electric when he is on. The Canadian lefty Caleb Clark is going to challenge for a spot as well. Clark was a weekend starter right out of the chute as a freshman and it became quite apparent that he was not ready as he was replaced after his first three starts in 2023. That said, he has great stuff, looked very good this fall, and working with Professor Childress may be just what he needs to get back into the weekend lineup in 2024.
The coaching staff recruited heavy in terms of finding individuals that would take the ball as a starter. In the past two years, transfers from the portal have ended up filling starting roles in the first weekend. That may be the case again this year with Mason McConnaughey coming in from Cloud County CC with 93 strike outs in 68.2 innings and a 3.69 ERA.
The Childress/Sirianni impact can be seen when looking at the incoming freshmen pitchers that will most likely get a shot at earning a starting spot. Two of them come to Nebraska after previously committing elsewhere once the new coaches came on to the scene. Perhaps the one with the best chance of finding himself in the starting lineup is Ty Horn, a Wichita State decommit from Halstead, Kansas. The righthander did not give up a run during his senior season and notched 65 strikeouts in 38.2 innings. Two Nebraska boys may also find themselves in the mix. The top in-state prospect is Wayne’s Brooks Kenifl. Having originally committed to Kansas State, the 6’1” lefty switched to the Cornhuskers with the coaching change. Kenifl posted a 1.92 ERA along with 83 strikeouts in 47.1 innings last year. Ryan Harrahill from Elkhorn North has a huge upside as well. The lanky righty helped the Wolves to two consecutive state championships and turned a lot of heads this fall with his consistent 94 mph fastball and wicked breaking pitches.
Coming in from the bullpen . . .
Expect to hear some new names announced this year when the call goes to the bullpen because a number of players have moved on and the staff focused on building depth. The most significant loss is Shay Schanamann, who signed a free agent contract with the Atlanta Braves. The Grand Islander gave a lot to the Cornhusker program the past few years. C.J. Hood has transferred to Long Beach State, J.C. Gutierrez to Wharton County JC, Sam Novotny to Johnson County CC, and Corbin Hawkins entered the portal but looks to have just retired from baseball. Will Rizzo apparently announced he was retiring after fall ball, and both Mason Ornelas and Michael Garza completed their eligibility and moved on.
There are some successful pitchers returning that should be able to step in to either eat up innings or put out fires. Kyle Perry comes back for one final season. The graduate student has been part of the Nebraska program for what seems like ten years (actually this is six) and has played an important leadership role. The lefty is cagey and knows how to battle. Hopefully with another year of recovery from a significant injury he will have a little more pop and be more consistent from one appearance to the next. Lefty Jalen Worthley from Lincoln East returns for his sophomore season and most likely will be one of those guys that come in early and give four to five innings. It is possible he may also find himself in a starting role for midweek games. Trey Frahm is back after taking a redshirt last season and looks to regain his form as the probable closer last season prior to his injury.
With that many individuals leaving and only three returning, one may be a little concerned with what Nebraska will have available for the 2024 season. Don’t be! The coaching staff dipped into the portal and community college transfer pool and brought in six of experienced arms, particularly late inning guys, that will most likely find themselves in the bullpen. They come in so highly regarded that some media outlets were calling Nebraska’s JUCO signees the top class in the nation.
The nation's best JUCO class plays for Nebraska. pic.twitter.com/7J0oLSeZ0u— Nebraska Baseball (@HuskerBaseball) September 21, 2023
Of note are the number of pitchers with experience as the closer. Former Northwestern State closer Kyle Froelich had seven saves last year, tying for ninth in program history. Evan Borst comes from Iowa Central CC as a two-way player though it appears his focus will be on the mound. The Des Moines native also had seven saves last year and looked impressive in the games this fall. Lefty Grant Cleavinger spent last year at Tulane and averaged over a strikeout per inning in short relief. And a familiar face, one that Nebraska fans won’t remember fondly, has traded his Maverick black for Cornhusker cream. Rans Sanders will compete for Nebraska his senior year rather than Omaha. He made 13 appearance last season with a 2-1 record, four saves and 25 strikeouts in 23.2 innings. Hopefully he treats opposing hitters this season like he did Cornhusker hitters last year!
Casey Daiss has shown some pop since his arrival from Pasco Hernandez JC, along with a slider that he used to keep hitters off balance. In two years at Pasco Hernandez, he notched 125 strikeouts in 123 innings of work. Look for him to fill the long relief role, a la Schanaman, or perhaps start on the mound in the midweek. Another transfer that may fit that same bill is Bobby Olsen from Brown. The Powdersville, SC native filled a number of roles over three years for the Bears, including 17 starts.
There are four freshmen that will most likely compete for time out of the bullpen. Perhaps the most heralded is Ian Regal from Mayo Senior in Rochester, MN. The 6’2” lefthander was rated as the number two lefthanded pitcher and number 11 overall prospect out of Minnesota by Perfect Game. Carson Jasa is an imposing figure on the mound from Faith Christian Academy in Thornton, Co. At 6’7” he will tower over the rest of the staff and brings maybe the best fastball to the team. Its no surprise he was a force on the basketball court as well, leading his team to a state championship.
Noah Madsen is a righthanded strikeout pitcher from Woodcreek High School in Roseville, CA that shows quite a bit of promise, but may be a year away from being a strong contributor. Maybe the most exciting of the newcomers that will come out of the pen is Tucker Timmerman, a strong righthander from Beatrice. The multi-sport star won state titles in both baseball and basketball and was an all-state performer in football. In the fall he was throwing consistently at 96 mph and showed a breaking pitch that was baffling hitters.
In Rob Childress we trust! Fourteen new pitchers join the team and some of those will most likely be household names before the Cornhuskers throw their first regular season pitch at Hawks Field at Haymarket Park on March 8 against South Alabama. Coach Childress will have an impact on those who return, but when you look at who he has brought in, the expectation is that he and Coach Bolt will rely heavily on some of the new guys. A prediction is that Will Walsh and Drew Christo will start games in Texas when the team opens their season. A sleeper pick to start is Caleb Clark, but it may go to Brett Sears or Mason McConnaughey. Once they go to the bullpen, count on seeing a number of new fellas on the mound, including some of the freshmen.
The success of Nebraska’s season is going to depend on the pitching staff. As is usually the case with northern teams, it takes a few weeks for things to sort out. That is why it is so important to play a lot of games early against quality competition; you have to see what you have. It will be critical that there is depth this year as those midweek games are very important as well and Nebraska has pitched poorly in those the last three years. That’s where the depth is going to be so important.
One week until the season opener in Arlington, Texas people. Hang in there, we’ve almost Made it!