What a difference a year can make.
This time last year, a Ross Kivett-led K-State baseball team had their sights set high after capturing the program’s first Big 12 championship.
But injuries and other factors turned what was supposed to be another dream season into a unmitigated nightmare, as the Wildcats finished dead last in the conference and were forced to part ways with a talented senior core due to graduation.
This season, Big 12 coaches picked the Wildcats to repeat once again — not as Big 12 champions — but as the team to bring up the rear in a competitive conference.
“It’s an unfortunate cycle that we just hit,” said Brad Hill, K-State head coach, at media day last week. “We lost a lot of people and that just hasn’t happened in our program for a long time. It’s kind of like starting over … In the past, we have really relied upon our returning players to grab the guy that is playing next to him or below him, and work with him; help them develop. Now, it’s more of we the coaching staff having to really jump in.”
K-State welcomes 22 newcomers to an extremely depleted team that has just three returning position starters.
With so many new faces in the the program, building a team bond was the first priority for senior first baseman Shane Conlon.
“You know, when you have a turnaround like that – when a bunch of guys leave and you have 20-plus new guys – the only place to start is to start building team chemistry,” Conlon said. “With 40 people coming in during the fall and no one really knows each other, you have to take a step to do that or else it can turn into situations like those in the past.”
Within the group of newcomers, transfer junior shortstop Tyler Wolfe has made the most impressive impression so far.
“He kind of continues along the line of shortstops that we’ve had,” Hill said. “You know — knock on wood — every shortstop we’ve had since I’ve been here has been drafted, and I think he should continue that. He’s a plus-defender. He’s still working on his swing and trying to develop a swing that’s going to give him a little more success. I’ve been really impressed with him.”
The team may be inexperienced, but senior outfielder Max Brown and senior infielder Carter Yagi feel that could benefit K-State in the long run.
“There’s definitely a chip on our shoulder, but this year is different because there is a lot of weight lifted off of our shoulders,” Yagi said. “Last year, I think we had a hard time dealing with the expectation of what we were supposed to be, instead of just going out there and playing and proving people wrong. I think with the young guys this year, it’s nice to not have so much maturity because we can just go out there and play hard and just do what we can do every day.”
The season kicks off Friday with the Snowbird Classic in Port Charlotte, Florida. There, the Wildcats will take on the likes of Iowa, Pittsburgh, George Mason and Saint Louis.
“There are no expectations, but obviously we are going to get picked at the bottom of the Big 12, which is fine,” Conlon said. “None of that stuff matters. Obviously, we saw that last year when we were picked to win the league again. That stuff doesn’t matter; you can’t be thinking about that. The main thing is we are not even trying to think about our expectations. We are going to take it one game at a time.”