Price has Kansas thinking something special

Feb. 5, 2010


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Just a few steps away from Hoglund Ballpark at Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas fans pack the stands no matter if its basketball team is playing Fort Hays State in an exhibition game or Texas in an epic Big Monday matchup.

Someday, Kansas baseball coach Ritch Price hopes for a similar atmosphere – albeit on a much smaller scale – at his ballpark.

Unlike the basketball program, Kansas isn’t exactly a historic juggernaut on the diamond. The Jayhawks went 58 seasons before winning a conference championship in 2006. They have only reached the College World Series once – back in 1993.

Until this season, the Jayhawks hadn’t been ranked to begin a season since ’95.

That’s the engine Price is in charge of. And it’s his leadership that has helped KU jump from obscurity to one of the best teams in the Big 12.

“Ritch really has done a fabulous job at Kansas. His positive attitude is infectious to everyone in the athletic department and that’s a major reason he has been successful,” said a Big 12 coach. “What he has done is impressive. They have more back this season than anyone else in the conference.”

That includes top-ranked Texas.

There’s a big difference between being hyped in the preseason and posting victories, but the fact Price has guided the Jayhawks this far is impressive.

No one saw this coming.

Price has spent six seasons at Kansas. He came to the Jayhawks from Cal Poly, where he enjoyed wonderful weather about 350 days a year. By comparison, the state of Kansas has received record snowfalls this winter and it will likely be frigid when the season begins at home against Eastern Michigan.

Call him crazy, but Price loves his role at Kansas. It’s his baseball paradise.

“The thing for me when I came here was just the opportunity to recruit kids to play at Kansas and a conference like the Big 12,” Price said. “That takes all the negatives out of the way when it comes to coaching in the Midwest.”

Price went through his share of growing pains. He watched Wichita State and Nebraska dominate the regional landscape. The Shockers have been a national power for decades, and coach Dave Van Horn turned the Huskers into a national contender before Mike Anderson continued where he left off.

But even with the big boys in the region flourishing, Price found a way to break through.

The Jayhawks took a huge step forward in ’06 when they won the Big 12 tournament title and an NCAA regional appearance. They finished that season with an impressive 43-25 record.

“You have to put things in perspective, that was the first conference title in 58 years for this program,” Price said. “We were just hoping to gain some ground and become a player in the Big 12.”

The Jayhawks didn’t have particularly impressive ’07 and ’08 campaigns, but they returned to their successful ways last season with a 39-24 record and a trip to the Chapel Hill Regional title game.

KU fell short against North Carolina, but feels like last season was the turning point for the program.

“No one really thinks of Kansas as much of a baseball school, they think about basketball and sometimes football,” said KU third baseman Tony Thompson. “We showed we could compete in the Big 12 and the NCAA postseason. It was a huge deal for us.”

The stage has been set for this season in other ways, too.

When Price arrived at Kansas, the program had one of the worst facilities in the Big 12. Now, the Jayhawks have a solid 2,500-seat facility with a new state-of-the-art video board and an indoor training facility.

Much improved recruiting is the other prong to Kansas’ success.

“We had a four-year program when I got here, and we made a regional our fourth season at Kansas,” Price said. “The biggest difference the past few seasons is that we’ve made amazing strides in the pitching department. We’re starting to win some big-time recruiting battles in the Midwest. That’s very important.”

And Kansas enters this season with one of the conference’s best pitching staffs.

Weekend starter T.J. Walz has much upside and spent last summer playing with Team USA. Lee Ridenhour held opposing teams to a .280 batting average last season. Cameron Selik made 10 starts last season and is a very adequate replacement for departed pitcher Shaeffer Hall.

Kansas’ bullpen is also impressive with the return of reliever Colton Murray, who made 33 appearances last season and had a 3.23 ERA in 39 innings. There are plenty of other talented arms the Jayhawks will count on this season, too.

“This is by far the deepest pitching staff we’ve ever had here,” Price said. “Not only are we solid on the weekend, but the bullpen also is in excellent shape. We’ve continued to do a great job of developing our young arms.”

Depth is a tough goal to accomplish if you’re a northern or Midwestern team, but Price has knocked the obstacle down after six seasons at Kansas.

The Jayhawks still have hopes of becoming a consistent regional contender and perhaps a permanent fixture near the top of the Big 12.

But most important, Price and the No. 25 Jayhawks would love nothing more than to make a trip to the College World Series this season.

It has been 17 years since Kansas took the field at Rosenblatt Stadium.

It’s safe to say the Jayhawks are due.