Kansas’ Field Of Dreams: KU, K-State & Wichita State Make The NCAA Tournament
(With the end of the year fast approaching, we’re counting down some of the top moments from the 2009 college baseball season. We’ll have one a day through New Year’s Eve.)
It’s far from shocking when Wichita State receives a berth in the NCAA Baseball Tournament. Gene Stephenson’s Shockers are practically synonymous with college baseball in the Sunflower State. But 2009 was, without a doubt, the most successful overall season in the history of college baseball in Kansas as Kansas, Kansas State and Wichita State all
made in to an NCAA Regional in the same season for the first time ever.
While Wichita State has been as successful as its own high standards in recent years, 2009 was largely business as usual for the Shockers. Stephenson’s squad advanced to its 27th NCAA regional this year. But consider this: WSU’s seven College World Series trips prior to ’09 are more than twice as many NCAA appearances (3) as Kansas and Kansas State had combined before last season.
Kansas State earned its first baseball win in program history back in 1897. Entering 2009 the Wildcats had amassed a little more than 1,500 wins, but none of them had ever come in an NCAA Tournament game. In fact, none of their losses had ever come in an NCAA game either. Prior to head coach Brad Hill’s arrival in June of 2003 K-State had never been to the NCAAs, and they had qualified for exactly one Big 12 Tournament.
Hill came to Manhattan from Central Missouri State where he had guided the Mules to seven Division II College World
Series berths in his nine seasons in Warrensburg, Mo. Hill’s program overhaul didn’t happen overnight, but the turning point toward respectability was probably in 2005.
On April 3, 2005, in Hill’s second season at the helm, Kansas State beat top-ranked Texas 5-3 in their series finale at Disch-Falk Field. Texas would go on to win the national championship that season, while KSU wouldn’t sniff the postseason, but it was a monumental win for a program on the rise. It marked the nearly 110 year old program’s first ever win over a number one ranked team, and after 17 tries it was also the Wildcat’s first ever win over the Longhorns-the standard bearer for baseball in the Big 12.
K-State finished 2008 with a 29-29 record, but the momentum of a run to the Big 12 title game (and loss to Texas) heading into the 2009 season. The Wildcats went 43-18-1 this past season, and they were just flat better across the
board. The team ERA dropped from 5.12 in ’08 to 4.52 in ’09, and the team batting average and home run totals jumped from .261/36 to .317/58.
The biggest individual improvements came from Justin Bloxom and A.J. Morris. Bloxom hit just .288 with 8 HR and 49 RBIs as a junior, but he blossomed to .361/12/63 (all team-highs) in his final season in Manhattan. Morris had won just 8 games in his first three seasons pitching in Wildcat purple (he redshirted his freshman season in 2006), but he was named the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year this past season after going 14-1 with a 2.09 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 116.1 innings.
K-State made its NCAA debut at the Houston Regional where Hill rolled the dice in the opener. Instead of starting his ace, Hill went with Lance Hoge, who was victorious in a 16-8 win over Xavier. Morris gave-up 13 hits the next day in a complete game 7-6 win over the host Owls. KSU lost its next two games though to Rice, which advanced to a Super Regional match-up with eventual national champion LSU.
The transformation wasn’t quite as dramatic for Ritch Price as Kansas. The Jayhawks had been to the NCAA
tournament twice prior to Hill’s arrival in Lawrence in July of 2002, but KU hadn’t been to an NCAA Regional since 1994-the year after the Jayhawks made it all the way to their only College World series appearance.
Price is now heading into his eighth season at the Kansas helm, and his teams have won at least 30 games six times. Prices’s Jayhawks won their first conference title in nearly 50 years in 2006, to earn the program’s first NCAA bid since ’94.
Kansas started the season with the excitement of
(click for podcast interview) vs. Air Force on opening day, and then started Big 12 play a little more than a month later with a 3-game sweep of top-ranked Texas. The wins would propel the Jayhawks to a 39-24 overall record and 15-12
conference mark-improvements of nine and six wins respectively from the previous season.
KU’s offense was spearheaded by Tony Thompson. The sophomore third baseman hit just .276 with 5 HR and 18 RBIs as a freshman, but he made history in 2009 by becoming the first player to win the Big 12 Triple Crown. Thompson led the conference in batting average (.389) home runs (21) and RBIs (82). His efforts helped the Kansas offense go from a .261 hitting team with just 36 home runs in 2008 to a .301 average with 58 longballs last season.
(Click play to listen to a podcast interview that Collegebaseball360.com Editor Sean Stires recorded with Thompson last spring.)
The Jayhawks’ 17-7 win over arch-rival Kansas State to end the regular season gave them 25 home wins in 2009-the 2nd most in program history.
Despite an 0-3 mark at the Big 12 Tournament, KU earned the fourth NCAA bid in the 118 years of the program. The Jayhawks made it to the championship game of the Chapel Hill, NC Regional, but lost 12-1 to the host North Carolina. The Tar Heels would go on to their fourth straight College World Series appearance.
Other Top Moments Of 2009