Walk-ons walk into big roles for Minnesota baseball team

Matt Nohelty and Tom Buske have become stats leaders since joining the team.

There are few walk-on athletes that make an impact quite like they do on the Minnesota baseball team.

The Gophers have come to rely on the walk-ons, but juniors Matt Nohelty and Tom Buske have recently redefined the role through their excellent performances.

After joining the team as walk-ons, Nohelty and Buske have climbed the ranks and become leaders of the Minnesota program.

Nohelty leads the team in hitting with a .406 batting average and Buske leads the pitching staff with a 3-2 record and a 2.62 ERA.

Partly out of necessity, the two athletes joined the team as recruited walk-ons, but quickly became models for the philosophy head coach John Anderson has installed.

“I think that’s been the big key to our success as a program, and our long history and tradition of being able to be consistently towards the top of the league, is because of our recruited walk-ons,” Anderson said. “There have been a number of them over the years that have played big parts.”

With only 11.7 scholarships at his disposal, Anderson and his staff tell recruits that they may not receive aid initially, but if their performance warrants aid, Anderson will happily oblige.

“In some cases you like guys and you just don’t have any aid to put into them right now,” Anderson said. “We told Tom, ‘We don’t have any aid right now, but if you come and you can make a contribution when these guys leave, you’re next in line.’ He’s turned out to be one of those kids that have worked out.”

Much of the success Nohelty and Buske have enjoyed comes from the tutelage of Anderson and his staff’s ability to forge capable players from the talent they possess.

“They weren’t finished products by any means out of high school, but we always look at potential – who can we take and make a better player than they are right now,” Anderson said. “In both those cases we saw two guys we thought we could make into better players, and eventually be Division I players.”

Buske was redshirted his freshman year and only pitched 6.2 innings his sophomore year before he got his opportunity as the No. 1 starter last season.

“I think the key to me stepping in the Friday night role halfway through the year is that they’ve shown that they trust me,” Buske said.

The trust the coaches have in Buske has come from the work he has put in during his first two years.

When Buske came to the program, he battled injuries throughout high school and didn’t fit the typical profile of a Division I pitcher.

“He got an opportunity and he seized it and has done something with it,” Anderson said. “He’s put on some velocity, he’s improved his delivery, he’s learned how to train, he’s in much better shape and he’s improved all facets of his game.”

Last season Buske led the starters in ERA and was tied for the lead in wins.

“Getting a scholarship now has been a little more rewarding than it would have been if I wouldn’t have proven anything,” Buske said. “The scholarship I have now means more to me because I earned it by pitching well and proving myself.”

Nohelty also redshirted his freshman season and improved so much over the course of his first year that he won the starting centerfield job halfway through the 2006 season.

“I worked in kind of slowly,” Nohelty said. “I kind of started pinch running and pinch hitting, playing mid-week games, and it’s been really gradual. It’s worked out exactly how I would like it.”

Last season, Nohelty was named to the All-Big Ten team and finished second in batting average for the Gophers.

Nohelty had to improve his arm in the outfield before he made his way into the everyday lineup, but as soon as he did he has hit everything in sight, as he finished last year with a .367 average.

“In the beginning it wasn’t always pretty, but there was progress being made,” Anderson said. “Slowly but surely he’s gotten better everyday he’s been here.”