KU Baseball Opens Season at Hawaii-Hilo

Jan. 30, 2007


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KU Opens Season at Hawaii-Hilo
For the fifth consecutive year, the University of Kansas baseball team will open its season in Hawaii. The Jayhawks will face Hawaii-Hilo five times in four days from Feb. 1-4. KU will be the first Big 12 team to play a regular season game in 2007. The Jayhawks and Vulcans will play a single game on Thursday at 11 p.m. central time (7 p.m. local time), a doubleheader Friday, beginning at 7 p.m., and single games Saturday and Sunday, beginning at 5 p.m. and 4 p.m., respectively. <?xml:namespace prefix=”o” ns=”urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office”?>

Scouting the Vulcans
Hawaii-Hilo enters the series with KU after facing defending national champion Oregon State on Jan. 26-28. The Beavers and Jayhawks are two of five 2006 NCAA Tournament teams that will visit Hilo in 2007.

The Vulcans return 13 letterwinners and five position starters from last year’s team. Starting second baseman Michael Higa is UHH’s top returning player, hitting .331 with seven doubles and three triples in 2006. While Clayton Uyechi anchors the starting rotation after posting a 4-1 record last season.

Head Coach Joey Estrella is in his 31st season with the team and has an overall coaching record of 527-662-5. The Jayhawks are 19-7 all-time against the Vulcans, including 10-1 against UHH over the last two seasons.

Jayhawks Look to Build on Last Season’s Success
When Ritch Price took the head coaching job at the University of Kansas prior to the 2003 season, his goals were to turn the once proud Jayhawks into a team capable of winning a conference championship and advancing to the NCAA Tournament. Mission accomplished.

After last year’s 43-win, Big 12 Championship season, Price’s team has officially arrived. Now, coming off their most successful campaign in over a decade, the question facing the team this year is, can they do it again?

“It’s going to be a very interesting year,” Coach Price said. “We lost some guys who have been part of this program for as long as I’ve been here, who were the winningest senior class in school history.”

“That being said, I really like the nucleus of players that we have returning. We have five or six guys returning who were starters a year ago. They were all key contributors, but at the same time none of those guys were the impact player that carries the team. That’s a huge step. So its going to be interesting to see if those guys can take their game to the next level to replace the guys who graduated.”

Last season’s success did not go unnoticed by Major League Baseball scouts as seven KU players were either drafted or inked professional contracts following the season, leaving the current roster young, albeit talented. KU returns six position starters from a year ago and 18 letterwinners overall. Outfielder John Allman, shortstop Erik Morrison and second baseman Ryne Price all earned regular season or post-season all-conference honors in 2006, while several other players are more than capable of reaching that level.

The road to success will not be an easy one to navigate for KU. The Jayhawks will once again face one of the toughest schedules in the country. Over half of the Big 12 Conference received NCAA Tournament berths in 2006, making the league schedule challenging. KU also travels to NCAA participants Arkansas, Oral Roberts, Stanford and Wichita State in non-conference play. All-in-all the team will play nearly half of its regular season contests (29-of-61) against 2006 NCAA Tournament teams.

Heading into last season, catcher was likely the biggest question mark in the Jayhawk lineup. Sophomore Buck Afenir and junior transfer Dylan Parzyk answered those questions admirably. Afenir, the nephew of former Major League catcher Troy Afenir, hit .391 with a pair of home runs in the postseason last season. Parzyk provided solid defense behind the plate, throwing out nearly 30 percent of would-be base stealers.

Both will be pushed for playing time by JUCO transfer Joe Servais, who is coming off a first class season at Garden City Community College. The cousin of former Major League catcher Scott Servais, hit .356 and stole 14 bases in leading Garden City to within one victory of the JUCO World Series. Junior transfer Joe Southers and redshirt junior Eric Snowden will also figure into the equation.

“I’m very pleased with the depth we have at catcher,” Price said. “It’s clearly the best catching depth that we’ve had at that position my five years here. We have four guys who we’re very comfortable sticking behind the plate at any time.”

KU returns a talented cast of infielders to the lineup, including juniors Erik Morrison and Ryne Price. Both players will provide pop to the middle of the lineup as well as a solid double play combination. Morrison led the team with 14 homers last season, while batting .290. Price battled injuries throughout the year but managed to hit nine home runs in just 86 at-bats, or one every 9.6 at-bats.

Sophomore Preston Land is slated to be the team’s starting first baseman after a freshman season that saw him hit .314 with a freshman record nine homers and 33 RBIs. Land, a 6-foot-2 righty, also hit 12 doubles last year.

Freshman Robby Price rounds out the KU starting infield at the hot corner. Price, last year’s Kansas High School Player of the Year, led Free State High School to the 2006 Class 6A state championship.

Junior Matt Berner and redshirt freshman Steve Cochran will serve as utility infielders, backing up the middle and third base. Senior Ross Kelling and sophomore Justin Ellrich will both see time at first base and also DH. Kelling appeared in just 16 games in 2006, but produced a .417 batting average and played error free in 36 chances at first.

The Jayhawks outfield, while losing the likes of Gus Milner and Big 12 Championship MVP Matt Baty, remains strong with juniors John Allman and Brock Simpson returning from last year’s lineup. Second Team All-Big 12 selection Allman is slated to be the team’s starting left fielder. The 6-foot junior hit .333 with 16 doubles, six homers and 52 RBIs in his first season as a starter. Allman will be looked upon to provide a solid bat at the top of the order.

Junior Brock Simpson, who saw most of his at-bats as the designated hitter, hit .293 in 61 games. Simpson is blessed with above average speed, leading the team with six triples, while stealing five bases in seven attempts.

Senior Kyle Murphy brings experience as well as a strong arm to the KU outfield. Murphy had four assists in a backup role last season, gaining a reputation as being one of the best defensive outfielders in the league, starting 22 games and serving as a late-inning defensive replacement. Price believes he will be the starting center fielder on opening day.

JUCO transfer Casey Larson will also be in the mix in the KU outfield. Larson played at Cuesta (Calif.) Community College last year and hit .321 in 41 games with five homers and eight stolen bases. He was named First Team All-Southern Conference.

Sophomore Nick Faunce and freshmen Kevin Bedford, Brian Heere and Blake Slagle will look to gain experience this season.

Starting Pitching
While the names may be different from years past, the talent is still evident on the Jayhawk pitching staff. Gone are veterans Kodiak Quick, Sean Land, Ricky Fairchild and NCBWA Stopper of the Year, Don Czyz, who earned over half of the team’s victories last season. However, their replacements are more than capable.

“We have talented guys with good arms with the potential to be big time Division I pitchers. Right now we just lack experience,” Price said. “Hopefully in the 25 games we play in our non-conference schedule before we start Big 12 play, we can develop those guys to where they’re ready to take the next step. They’re talented, they’re just untested.”

All three positions in the starting rotation are up for grabs, however Coach Price believes he has three strong candidates in transfer Zach Ashwood and sophomores Nick Czyz and Andy Marks, who are all left-handed.

Ashwood, who pitched for TCU last season, tossed 33.2 innings for the Horned Frogs going 0-1 with a 5.08 ERA. In 57.1 innings of college ball, Ashwood has struck out 42 hitters.

Nick Czyz, the younger brother of former ace reliever Don Czyz, was a spot starter last season. Czyz performed admirably down the stretch, earning victories over Creighton and against Nebraska in the Big 12 Championship. For the season, Czyz was 4-3 with a 5.11 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 49.1 innings.

Marks, another southpaw, made one start and 19 appearances out of the bullpen for KU in 2006 and went 2-1 with a 5.35 ERA. Marks combined on two shutouts during the season and struck out 31 hitters in 33.2 innings of work.

Price also thinks that freshmen Wally Marciel and Thomas Marcin will begin the season as the team’s midweek starters and perhaps see work in long relief.

Relief Pitching
Last season, freshman Paul Smyth was used more than any other Jayhawk freshman ever has been, making 36 appearances as the set up man for Don Czyz. Price is hoping to use Smyth, who had five wins in relief, in a similar role this season. Junior transfer Hiarali Garcia is slated to be the closer, taking over for Don Czyz.

Senior Ryotaro Hayakawa will also see innings out of the bullpen in 2007. Hayakawa made a career-high 20 appearances and struck out 11 in 20 innings of work.

Redshirt junior Matt Lane will also look for an increasing role on the team this season. Lane made eight appearances out of the bullpen last year. KU will also look to sophomore Brett Bollman and freshmen Brett Bochy and Max Ellenbecker for innings out of the pen.

“I really like our depth in the bullpen. It’s the first time in my five years of being here that I feel comfortable with several guys holding a lead in the late innings and getting to the closer at the end of the game,” Price said.