LINCOLN – The announcement arrived like a comebacker to the mound. A smattering of claps came from the group of players and coaches watching the selection show on the videoboard at Haymarket Park.
Nebraska is headed to Arkansas.
Despite holding a top-25 ranking in every major college baseball poll and finishing strong as the outright champion of the Big Ten, the Huskers essentially enter the postseason as the No. 32 overall seed. They’ll be the second seed in the four-team Fayetteville Regional, hosted by No. 1 overall national seed Arkansas fresh off a rare sweep of the SEC regular-season and tournament titles.
NU (31-12) opens against third-seeded Northeastern (36-10) – which won the CAA tournament – at 7 p.m. Friday on ESPN. Arkansas (46-10) and fourth-seeded NJIT (26-22) will meet earlier in the day.
“Obviously it’s hard to ignore where you’re headed,” NU senior outfielder Joe Acker said. “But right now we’ve got to focus on our task at hand, which is Northeastern.”
Nebraska’s familiar don’t-care mantra will come in handy in the wake of a draw that few around the program saw coming. Big Red seemingly played its way out of such a treacherous pairing in recent weeks while winning 10 of its last 11 games, including a series win over Michigan over the weekend.
The Big Ten’s other two qualifiers – Maryland and Michigan – both earned three seeds in seemingly more manageable regionals. The Terps head to No. 13 overall seed East Carolina while the Wolverines go to No. 10 overall Notre Dame as one of the last four teams in the field.
“I think this team does a really good job of just focusing on playing the game,” senior outfielder Jaxon Hallmark said. “External factors don’t really affect as much. We just control what we can control.”
Added shortstop/closer Spencer Schwellenbach, the Big Ten’s freshly minted Player of the Year: “Arkansas is a really good team and we get a chance to go play them early. We’re capable of beating any team in the country and we’re going to embrace that.”
Why was a power conference champ sent to Arkansas when it might have hosted a regional in a normal year? NCAA Division I Baseball Committee chair Jeff Altier said it was part of the “big challenge” of evaluating programs that played league-only schedules. Asked whether the Huskers were penalized by not facing anyone outside their conference, Altier answered “maybe,” adding that the committee spent considerable time parsing through possible teams to head to Fayetteville.
“I do know that somebody’s got to play Arkansas,” Altier said. “It was difficult to get there. But somebody’s got to play the No. 1.”
Geography also is a factor, with fans in Lincoln just a seven-hour drive away from Baum-Walker Stadium. And while storylines may not have overtly played a role in the final pairing, the prospect of Husker coach Will Bolt facing his former coach as a player at Nebraska in Arkansas’s Dave Van Horn also makes for compelling television.
“It’s always a little bit weird when you’re playing somebody in your tree,” Bolt said. “But this weekend it’s going to be all about the baseball, there’s really no doubt about that.”
NU hasn’t advanced beyond the regional round since 2005, when it reached the College World Series. Since then it has gone 5-14 across seven regional appearances, including 2-8 in the Big Ten era. The team is in the postseason for a fifth time in seven completed campaigns.
The Huskers are also a No. 2 seed for the fourth time in program history. They went a combined 2-6 in such spots in 1999, 2014 and 2017.
Acker said the setup is appropriate for a group that had to prove itself repeatedly all spring, beginning in March when Big Ten coaches didn’t vote Nebraska in their preseason top six. Few nationally will give them much of a chance now.
As far as the Huskers are concerned, they’re in good position to make some noise.
“It fits this team,” Acker said. “It’s very fitting for this year that we’re going to be headed to the No. 1 overall (seed). This team’s built for that. We’ve been built for that from day one in the fall to handle whatever’s thrown at us. I think it’s really fitting that we’re headed there.”
Three Big Ten teams in the field
After qualifying five teams for the NCAA tournament in three of the last five postseasons, the Big Ten sent three Monday.
The mandated league-only schedule left its imprint on the teams that made it and some that didn’t too. Maryland (59 RPI) and Michigan (89) joined league champ Nebraska (42) as the three teams in. Others ended on the wrong side of the bubble including Iowa (77) and Indiana (107), which faded down the stretch after sitting atop the standings for much of the spring.
The Terps are in for the third time as a league member after trips in 2017 and 2015. Michigan, which squeaked in in 2019 en route to a dream run to the College World Series final, also made recent appearances in 2017 and 2015. Selection committee chair Jeff Altier said Michigan may have the highest RPI ever for an at-large qualifier.