Big Ten Tournament Champs Head to Old Haunt for NCAAs
By Steve Beideck
The chant of “Go Big Red” that emanated from Memorial Stadium may have come as a surprise to random passers-by the morning of May 14.
But there was good reason, and the stadium just happened to be filled with attendees and honorees at the 2022 Nebraska Spring Commencement.
So Nebraska Chancellor Ronnie Green urged them on: “Go Big Red!” and say it loud enough to be heard all the way to Secchia Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan.
That’s where the Huskers were playing Michigan, 727 miles away, for the Big Ten softball tournament championship.
The sizable crowd at Memorial Stadium happily obliged, and the Huskers did indeed go on to beat Michigan, 3-1, and earn their first Big Ten tournament championship and first softball conference title since winning the Big 12 crown in 2004.
It was a huge victory for the program that has battled through some rough times. The 2017 season began with 10 consecutive losses and ended with a 24-29 record. Identical 31-23 records were posted the following two years, but neither felt like much of a success.
The 2018 campaign ended with losses in nine of the final 10 games, and in 2019 the Huskers once again lost their first Big Ten tournament game. The 2020 season was called off because of the global pandemic after a 9-14 start, and 2021 produced a middling 22-22 record in a season of conference-only opponents.
Securing their first NCAA tournament berth since 2016 roughly 28 hours before the brackets were revealed on ESPN2 allowed this young team to take a breath, appreciate the moment and maybe realize it’s begun to put a perennial power back in the softball spotlight.
Being one of the four teams selected for the Stillwater, Oklahoma, regional, hosted by No. 7 national seed Oklahoma State, is providing a trip down memory lane for coaches and others within the program.
Recollections of so many Big Eight and Big 12 conference showdowns – prior to the Big Ten era that began with the 2012 season – brought on a few cases of deja vu.
The nostalgia hit home as soon as the team bus arrived at the hotel in Stillwater. Coach Rhonda Revelle said radio play-by-play man, Nate Rohr, was the first to bring it up.
“Nate and I talked about that when we got to town,” Revelle said. “Nate said, ‘This feels oddly familiar.’ He was right. When we get to the field and practice on it, it will feel even more familiar.”
Nebraska is 48-47 all-time against OSU, but the two teams haven’t played since 2014.
When the Huskers’ destination was announced, a delay in the video feed made it appear the Huskers weren’t pleased with where they were heading. Revelle said that wasn’t the case.
“We weren’t mad at all,” Revelle said. “Number one, we’re getting on a bus. We didn’t have to get on a plane, and that was great news. Second, we’re still in the Central time zone, so that was another plus.”
To get a shot at Oklahoma State in the winner’s bracket (the Cowgirls open against Fordham), the 40-14 Huskers first must defeat North Texas in their May 20 first-round matchup.
Riding a five-game winning streak after posting an 18-game win streak that included a 13-0 start to the conference portion of the schedule, then losing four of their next five, has taught the Huskers how to handle ups and downs.
“The win streak helped us learn how to embrace the excitement around our program but also be able to shut it out when the focus needs to be on getting better,” Revelle said. “We love that people are noticing Nebraska softball, but we need to keep them excited.”
Once all the regional fields were announced, a quick review of the brackets shows the selection committee placed Nebraska as the fifth-best team in the Big Ten. Northwestern was given the No. 9 national seed and is hosting a regional that features Oakland, McNeese and Notre Dame.
Michigan was nearly awarded a home regional but instead goes to No. 16 Central Florida and will play South Dakota State in the first round. Illinois and Ohio State also were placed as No. 2 seeds against national seeds lower than Oklahoma State. The Fighting Illini are paired with No. 15 Missouri and the Buckeyes travel to No. 11 Tennessee.
A second-place finish in the regular season standings and the tournament championship didn’t appear to be enough for the committee even though Nebraska was 3-0 against Michigan and 2-2 against Ohio State. The Huskers won the last two games against the Buckeyes, including a 2-1 victory in the tournament semifinals.
Nebraska also had four players on the all-tournament team – pitchers Olivia Farrell and Courtney Wallace, second baseman Cam Ybarra and first baseman Mya Felder. Ybarra was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
Revelle said where Nebraska landed in the brackets has never been a discussion point in any meetings. The Huskers focus on what they can control – themselves.
“If you look at he all-tournament team, three of the pitchers on there we had victories over,” Revelle said. “We were facing good pitching. You get to this time of year you don’t expect high-scoring games. In these tournaments they all have hitting and pitching and can do some things.”
When he shouts “Go Big Red” the next time, the players likely will hear the chancellor because Ronnie Green will be in Stillwater. They heard him on May 15 when the team gathered for the selection show, and Green represented the championship trophy – the only one Nebraska has won in any sport this season – at Bowlin Stadium.
He also acknowledged the three seniors who missed the commencement exercises – Ybarra, Wallace and Anni Raley – because they were taking care of business in East Lansing.
Just as they have in the classroom, every player is continually learning on the field.
“They’ve learned not only how to exist in a close game, but how to come out on top,” Revelle said. “They’ve been learning as they’ve gone along; they’ve been learning to win and learning different ways to win.”