Pospisil: Nebraskans have thrived at the College World Series — but only one has won it all

One of the state’s best to play in the College World Series is McCook’s Billy Cotton, right, who with Arizona State in 1969 remains the only Nebraskan to win a national title. Some of the other top in-state CWS players include Kyle Bakker (with Georgia Tech), clockwise from top, Mark Gillaspie (Mississippi State), Ryan Merrill (TCU), Tony Schrager (Stanford), Joba Chamberlain (Nebraska) and Kyle Peterson (Stanford).

In 1957, when the College World Series was just getting roots in Omaha, there weren’t 5,000 in the stadium the night the first Omaha boy made good.

Bob Harden knocked one into the left-field seats.

“I was just happier than hell,” the Omaha Benson grad said last year. “All my relatives and friends were yelling and screaming, and I had to wave my hand rounding third at them, that they had seen it.”

Harden’s two-run homer couldn’t lift Iowa State past California in a second-round winners bracket game that night. The CWS run for the sophomore outfielder and fellow Nebraskan Gary Carstens, from Beatrice, ended later with another loss.

Ken Kempf of Scottsbluff and Joe Peck of Nebraska City also were in the 1957 CWS with Northern Colorado — which went 0-2 — sharing the distinction as the first homestate  players in the CWS since it came to Omaha in 1950.

Combing through the archives for this project detailing the Nebraska (and Council Bluffs) high school products on CWS teams — including those who played for Creighton in 1991 and Nebraska in 2001, 2002 and 2005 — turned up some real diamond gems .

» McCook’s Billy Cotton, with Arizona State in 1969, is the only one to win a CWS championship.

» Only five players, including Cotton, have made the all-tournament team. After him were Omaha Central’s Mark Gillaspie with Mississippi State in 1981, Omaha Burke’s Mike McCafferty with Creighton in 1991, Lincoln Pius X’s Andy Gerch with Nebraska in 2005 and Millard West's Ryan Merrill with TCU in 2016.

» Millard West product Daniel Bruce’s .444 average for the Huskers in 2005 (8 for 18) is the highest for anyone with at least 10 at-bats.

» Kempf and Peck are the only locals to play in the CWS three times.

» Millard North’s Mike Lorsbach made it here with two schools, Oklahoma State in 1999 and Rice in 2002. His homer for the Owls was the series’ first pinch-hit home run in nine years.

» Omaha Creighton Prep’s Kyle Peterson with Stanford threw the only complete game, against Clemson in 1995.

After Millard West’s Ryan Merrill played for TCU and Lincoln Southwest’s Logan Foster for Texas A&M last season, the number of players from the Midlands who came home for the CWS — there were none this year — increased to 31. Another 30 played for either CU or NU.

Cotton came to Arizona State sight unseen to coach Bobby Winkles. The Sun Devils skipper took him on the recommendation of Charles O. Finley. The owner of the then-Kansas City Athletics tried unsuccessfully to sign Cotton out of high school.

In pursuit, too, was NU’s Bob Devaney. Cotton was a football standout at McCook, as well.

The Arizona Republic reported at the time that Cotton held off on his NU letter of intent because his father was waiting to hear from the Sun Devils.

“I came within five days,” Cotton said of signing with the Huskers.

The World-Herald’s Gregg McBride suggested that the extended schedule — 40 games for freshmen, 54 for varsity — was attractive to Cotton.

Cotton played 21 games in 1968 and 57 in 1969, when he hit .335 with 41 RBIs and three home runs. The last, and biggest, was that three-run homer in the 10-1 win over Tulsa in the title game.

Arizona State was the first champion to lose its opener and come back through the losers bracket.

Cotton was in the Mets organization for most of his six seasons in the minors. He died in Kearney in July 2008 from a stroke. He was 60.

Cotton is the MVP of my mythical All-Nebraska All-CWS team.

Here are my position selections, based on CWS performance:

P: Kyle Peterson (Omaha Creighton Prep), Stanford, 1995, 1997

P: Kyle Bakker (Millard West), Georgia Tech, 2002

P: Joba Chamberlain (Lincoln Northeast), Nebraska, 2005

C: Billy Cotton (McCook), Arizona State, 1969

1B: Joe Peck (Nebraska City), Northern Colorado, 1957-59

2B: Mike McCafferty (Omaha Burke), Creighton, 1991

SS: Ryan Merrill (Millard West), TCU, 2016, 2017

3B: Clarke Lange (Omaha Burke), Miami, 1984

OF: Mark Gillaspie (Omaha Central), Mississippi State, 1981

OF: Andy Gerch (Lincoln Pius X), Nebraska, 2005

OF: Daniel Bruce (Millard West), Nebraska, 2002, 2005

DH: Tony Schrager (Omaha Westside), Stanford, 1997