Last season marked the K-State baseball program’s first conference title in 80 years, and they fell just one win short of the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. That unparalleled success is not a destination though, it is just another step forward for a program that is becoming a force in college baseball. And after a summer apart, the team is back together at fall camp and are preparing to defend their Big 12 title.
“It’s exciting,” said senior third baseman RJ Santigate, regarding the team joining back up again after the summer apart. “You all go your separate ways during summer ball, have your time away, then when you get back together, it’s a really good time.”
But before the team can think about defending their title or even getting on the field in the spring, there is plenty of work to do. Nonetheless, the players are happy to be back in Manhattan, practicing at Tointon Family Stadium in the fall air.
“It’s fresh, new faces, new guys and new expectations,” said senior second baseman Ross Kivett. “It’s fun to be out here in really good weather and hanging out with my best friends. It’s kind of the same feel as last year, not trying to put too much pressure on ourselves and just enjoy the process and get better every day.”
After being drafted in the 10th round and turning down a shot at the pros to return for his senior season, Kivett said he is happy to be back in the swing of things in Manhattan. The Big 12 Player of the Year will be joined by several key players from last year’s run, including the Big 12 Freshman of the Year Jake Matthys, who was also named a Freshman All-American by Louisville Slugger for his stellar season as the Wildcats’ closing pitcher.
K-State also returns senior catcher Blair DeBord, junior first baseman Shane Conlon, and junior shortstop Austin Fisher, all of whom were named First Team All-Big 12 – as well as Freshman All-Big 12 pitcher Blake McFadden.
As much talent as they have returning, there are some notable faces missing, including last year’s three starting outfielders. Jared King was taken in the fifth round over the summer by the New York Mets in the draft, while Tanner Witt and Jon Davis both graduated, leaving some holes in the lineup. Starting pitcher Joe Flattery graduated too.
However, in the world of collegiate sports, finding new faces to fill empty spots is nothing new, and just another part of the game. There are several players who are ready to step in after playing part time last year, and fall camp is all about finding new contributors.
“We’re just enjoying the process,” Kivett said of team’s path to the upcoming season. “We know that every day out here is a blessing, and we respect the game and play the game as hard as we can every day.”
The fall camp will give reigning Big 12 Coach of the Year Brad Hill a good look at who will step in and fill those gaps in 2014. Hill will be assisted again by pitching coach Josh Reynolds and hitting coach Mike Clement.
“There are a lot of people we need to get into the system and learn the things that we do,” said Hill. “There’s a big learning curve going on right now. It’s going to take some time. We’re about two weeks in with four weeks to go, so hopefully in a couple more weeks I’ll feel a little better about it.”
After such a successful year, it would be easy for a team to lay back and rest on its accolades. But under Hill, the Wildcats have never stopped fighting. As they integrate some new faces in with the familiar ones, expect another great “Bat Cat” squad to emerge in the spring.