Trying to Move Forward
Feb. 15, 2007
LAWRENCE, Kan. –
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of the Topeka Capital Journal. It was re-printed with permission.
By Daniel Berk
Special to kuathletics.com
Ritch Price didn’t have to say anything to his team. The piece of paper he had in his hands spoke volumes.
When he returned from a coaching convention in Florida in early January, Price brought back with him Baseball America’s 2007 projections for the Big 12 Conference.
Price’s Jayhawks were in a familiar spot, picked to finish last in the league.
A little surprising considering KU won 43 games a year ago, won the Big 12 Tournament and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in more than a decade.
“We don’t deserve to be picked last,” Topeka junior Brock Simpson said. “We felt like we put Kansas baseball on the map last year, and it’s a slap in the face for anyone to pick us last.”
It didn’t take long for Simpson and the rest of the KU squad to make copies and post them all over the locker room.
Price is a little more understanding.
“I think people look at the fact that the impact players have left,” Price said. “We had seven guys sign pro contracts last year, so if I’m a coach I guess I’d put us down there at ninth or 10th as well.”
Finishing ninth or 10th would be a dramatic step back from KU’s season a year ago. Obviously, Price doesn’t want that to happen. More importantly, he doesn’t think it will.
“I think the foundation has been laid,” he said. “I think we’re better in every phase of the game than when I got here four years ago. Our goal now is to stay there. We’ve won 30-plus games four times in a row for the first time in program history. We don’t want to go backwards.”
The Jayhawks took some of the biggest steps in program history last May, sweeping Texas A&M on the final regular-season weekend and winning four straight games to capture their first Big 12 Tournament title before going 1-2 in the regional round of the NCAA Tournament, including a loss to eventual national champion Oregon State.
In his four-plus seasons as head coach, Price’s team has qualified for the Big 12 Tournament all but one year, but had not won a game in the tournament until last year.
Stanford head coach Mark Marquess, whose team has played KU in all of Price’s seasons, said each year Price brings in a more-talented team, and he wasn’t surprised to see KU’s success at the end of last season.
“There’s not a better coach in America than Ritch,” Marquess said. “There might be more high-profiled ones, but there isn’t a better one.
“He’s not just a good game coach, he’s a great recruiter and organizer. He’s been able to get out there and get some good players. You’re only as good as the players you have.”
Jim Callis, a senior writer with Baseball America, was in charge of the Big 12 projections and said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Kansas again qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s not really a knock on Kansas, it’s a compliment to how good their conference is,” Callis said. “But they have a lot to replace from last season and the more you look at it, the more you wonder where their pitching will come from.”
The pitching staff Price now has doesn’t even resemble the staff that got his team to the NCAA Tournament.
Gone is All-American closer Don Czyz, along will all three weekend starters, including Sean Land, who opted to skip his senior season after being drafted by the Minnesota Twins.
“When you look at what they lost, it really is a lot,” Callis said. “Donny Czyz was one of the premier pitchers in America last year. Land was a high draft pick. They have a lot of holes to fill in their rotation.”
This year’s staff has fared well so far this season. Through the team’s first eight games of the season, the staff ERA is 1.80 and has helped the Jayhawks jump out to a 7-1 start.
With all the changes, and the uncertainty surrounding the pitching staff, Price said he knew he had to make a few changes to accommodate such a young squad.
He started with the scheduling. Instead of playing rivals Kansas State and Missouri three times each season, KU added a game with each team that will not count as a conference game.
KU and K-State play an annual three-game series, with two of the games at one school and one at the other on a rotating basis.
This year, the Jayhawks will travel to Manhattan for a mid-week night game to cap the four-game series.
“We did it for multiple reasons,” Price said. “We see it as a great opportunity to continue that rivalry and get 2,000 people in the stands. Not to mention, it’s a good RPI game for both teams.”
Kansas’ fourth game against Missouri will be at Kauffman Stadium, also on a weeknight.
“I got that Mizzou game circled,” said junior Ryne Price, one of two of the coach’s sons on the roster and in the infield. “I get to stand in the same box as George Brett. I wouldn’t mind hitting into the waterfalls.”
As for Baseball America’s projection, it’s nothing new for Ritch Price, whose career record of 362-340 includes a 145-112 mark at KU.
“We’ve already accomplished what people told me we couldn’t do when I took the job four years ago,” Price said. “Four years ago, I couldn’t get the four best players in the state to take a visit. Now, we’ve signed the best player in the state the last four years.”
Even Callis, who buried the Jayhawks in the conference cellar, said the program was in good hands.
“When he got there, he had his work cut out for him, playing in such a hard conference,” Callis said. “But he’s done some nice things since he’s been there. I didn’t expect him to walk in and win conference tournaments every year, but I knew he would have success. It’s a pretty impressive thing what he’s done there.”