It is late January and the temperature will rise no higher than then teens in Lawrence, Kan.
“And there are three inches of snow on the ground,” Kansas coach Ritch Price said.
In past years, the Jayhawks would have been already been working out by late January, but under the new NCAA rules teams are not permitted to commence workouts until Feb. 1 and cannot start playing games until the third Friday of February.
“It definitely helps level the playing field,” Price said. “Without question, the rule will help out the cold-weather teams across America.”
The Jayhawks will open the season Feb. 22-24 at Hawaii-Hilo. Price said this is the fifth consecutive year they’ve begun in Hawaii, but in the previous years they never had an outdoor workout before playing. Maybe the delay this year will allow Kansas to get an outside practice before playing a game.
Kansas opens conference play with a daunting task with three games at Texas.
“We’ve never won a game at Austin since we’ve been in the Big 12,” Price said.
About a 90-minute drive west in Manhattan, Kan., the weather is no better, but Kansas State coach Brad Hill is not so sure the delay of the start of the season would help put the cold-weather schools on par with their brethren in warmer climates.
“It remains to be seen if the changes will help,” Hill said. He points out two-time national champion Oregon State, Michigan and last year’s surprise College World Series team, Louisville, proved they can do very well without delaying the season.
“We opened the season one week earlier last year, so it doesn’t affect us a whole lot,” Hill said.
If the Jayhawks and Wildcats want to compete with the warm-weather power teams in the Big 12, they’ll have to do it with talent and experience, not with rules changes.
Leaning On Experience
In 2006, Kansas went 43-25, won the Big 12 tournament and had 13 seniors and seven players drafted. The Jayhawks, however, drew the misfortune of playing at Oregon State in regionals.
With just four seniors, only one who started, in 2007, the Jayhawks slipped to 9-17, next-to-last in the conference, and 28-30 overall. But this season the Jayhawks have an experienced team again, with 14 seniors, led by outfielder John Allman, who hit .333 with 44 RBIs last season, and eight juniors. Allman was recruited by KU out of high school for football, but instead opted to walk-on in baseball.
Junior lefthander Andy Marks, who went 7-3, 1.83 in the Northwoods League and threw a seven-inning no-hitter for Duluth last summer, hurt his shoulder and had labrum surgery that will keep him out until the end of March.
Even without Marks until March, Price said “this is by far the best pitching depth we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
It was aided by the additions two lefthanders: Marshall transfer Sam Freeman, who was a 24th-round pick of the Cardinals last year, and juco second-team All-American Shaeffer Hall, who was drafted in the 23rd round by the Indians after going 10-1, 2.19 at Jefferson College in Hillsboro, Mo.
Returning to the staff are starters Wally Marciel, who was 5-3, 3.94 as a freshman, and Nick Czyz, plus swingman Andres Esquibel, who led the team with seven victories, and closer Paul Smyth, who logged seven saves.
Hungry For Consistency
Kansas State lost just two seniors off a team that finished 34-24 overall and 10-16 in the Big 12. The Wildcats were an NCAA bubble team until being swept at Baylor in the final week, the only time they were swept last year.
“After we lost three to Baylor, we didn’t deserve to be there,” Hill said. “I knew we’d have to win the Big 12 tournament to go.”
So is Kansas State a conference contender this spring?
“We have to prove that,” Hill said. “We were in a great place last year and couldn’t get over the hump.”
He said the players came back “hungry” this year.
Daniel Edwards was the top reliever in the Big 12 last year, going 3-0, 2.27 with 11 saves and 49 strikeouts in 36 innings. Edwards is not a hard thrower, peaking in the upper 80s, with a good slider and changeup.
Brad Hutt, another senior, is the Friday night starter. Hutt went 9-4, 3.07 in 15 starts a year ago. Junior righthander Justin Murray should join him in the rotation—he has a fastball in the 90-92 range and was selected the pitcher of the year in the Texas Collegiate League last summer after going 5-2, 0.54 in eight starts for McKinney, but he was inconsistent last year with the Wildcats.
Murray was 4-3, 5.79 in 24 games—just four were starts, and Hill said he needs to be more efficient with his pitches.
The lineup has good speed in junior third baseman Nate Tenbrink and center fielder Byron Wiley, who led the Big 12 with a .494 on-base percentage (fourth-best in the nation) while he hit .366. “He really stepped forward and was very consistent throughout,” Hill said.
The Wildcats will need to be consistent throughout as a team if they want to break through in the Big 12.