Kansas State baseball begins season in favorite’s role

02/12/2014 4:37 PM

02/12/2014 11:17 PM

He delayed one dream to chase another.

That’s the choice Ross Kivett made when he returned to Kansas State for his senior baseball season.

The standout second baseman turned down an opportunity to sign with the Cleveland Indians, his hometown team, after they selected him in the 10th round of last summer’s draft in order to spend one final season with the Wildcats.

Why? He thinks they are destined for the College World Series.

“I would be pretty sad sitting on a minor-league bus seeing my guys go to Omaha,” Kivett said.

There is no guarantee K-State will reach college baseball’s biggest stage, but it has never appeared more poised to get there. The Wildcats are coming off the most successful season in program history, winning their first Big 12 championship and reaching their first NCAA Super Regional. With Kivett and fellow senior infielders Shane Conlon and Austin Fisher all back, they open the season ranked and picked to win the Big 12.

“We want to live up to what the expectations are,” sophomore closer Jake Matthys said. “Everybody expects us to get to Omaha. We expect us to get to Omaha, and anything short of that is not good. Everyone has been working hard in the weight room, on the field, conditioning. Everyone is very determined to make that next step and get to Omaha.”

The journey begins on Friday with a three-game series at Cal Poly, followed by five more games on the West Coast.

K-State is hoping to get off to a hot start, but it knows that won’t be easy. In years past, it has flown under the radar. Even though the Wildcats have advanced to the NCAA Tournament four times under coach Brad Hill, they have never experienced the spotlight that now shines on them.

This year, they expect to see the top pitchers from every team they encounter. That will be an adjustment for a team that prides itself on proving others wrong.

“This is the first year that we have had a target on our back,” said Conlon, a first baseman. “We always go play teams that have targets on their backs. This year it is definitely going to be a lot different.

“Next week, everyone is going to be throwing their top guys at us. We do have the target on our back this year, but I kind of like that. I have always liked that. If you ask all these guys, I think that they will like that, too.”

K-State will likely have enough offense to stand up to any challenges it sees on the mound. Kivett earned Big 12 player-of-the-year honors for hitting .360 with 57 runs scored as a junior, Fisher led the team with a .361 batting average, Conlon boomed seven home runs, and six players return that hit better than .324 last season.

The Wildcats have plenty of bats.

Question is, do they have enough arms? K-State relied on offense to win most of its games last season. As long as the score was close in the final inning, it took its chances. Walk-off victories were commonplace. And with Matthys in the bullpen, leads were secure. But the rest of the pitching staff left something to be desired.

Levi MaVorhis was 5-0, but opposing teams also scored on him. His ERA was 4.77. Jared Moore showed promise, but he will need to develop into a starter this season.

Of course, Hill will be asking for more from his pitchers. He said Nate Williams, Blake McFadden and Matt Wivinis will all miss the year with injuries, leaving the Wildcats with few proven pitchers.

“Those are three guys who threw a lot of innings last year that we won’t have,” Hill said. “That’s one of those things we are going to have to work through.”

Fortunately, the college baseball season is long. Hill expects to work through many of those issues before K-State takes the field for its home opener on Feb. 28.

With seniors like Kivett leading the way, Hill expects rapid improvement.

“He had a perfect 4.0 (GPA) in the fall,” Hill said. “He has been focused coming back. Instead of only focusing on his baseball and trying to improve his draft status, he wants to be Big 12 scholar athlete of the year, as well. That is pretty special.”

You have to be when dreams are on the line.

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