The only solace came from the other coaches. The only comfort came from the fact that Kansas baseball coach Ritch Price believed his team was safely in.
It was last Thursday morning in Oklahoma City, and Price was leaving Bricktown Ballpark after two one-run losses at the Big 12 baseball tournament. In a little more than 26 hours, the Jayhawks were out, the first team to be eliminated. Price was disappointed, of course. His team had finished third during the Big 12 regular season, the program’s best since the inception of the Big 12. And Price was hoping for a long stint in Oklahoma City, a weekend of momentum before the NCAA regional.
But after two losses in Bricktown, the Jayhawks slid closer to the NCAA bubble. So Price just had to hope that all the other Big 12 coaches were right about his team’s NCAA chances.
“All the coaches tell you,” Price said, “If you’re in before you go to the conference tournament, you can’t play your way out. And we were clearly in.”
Four days later, as the KU baseball team congregated inside their clubhouse on Monday morning, the nerves could finally subside. The Jayhawks were officially headed to an NCAA Regional, their name popping up on the screen during the televised selection show.
“The euphoria that was in that room,” Price said, “it gave me goose bumps.”
Senior starter Frank Duncan added: “It was a huge relief.”
The Jayhawks, 34-24, received a No. 3 seed in the Louisville regional, where they will open against No. 2 seed Kentucky, 35-21, at 1 p.m. Friday. No. 4 seed Kent State will play No. 1 Louisville, 45-14, in the other game at the site. The winner of the four-team, double-elimination regional will advance to an NCAA Super Regional.
For Kansas, it is the first NCAA appearance since 2009 and just the fifth in school history. It also punctuated an unlikely and improbable late-season hot streak. After being picked to finish last in the Big 12, and then losing No. 1 starter Wes Benjamin to Tommy John surgery in early April, the Jayhawks regrouped and finished the season with nine straight Big 12 victories.
“We’ve been playing for four years, and you remember big moments like this,” Duncan said, minutes after leaving a wild scene in the KU clubhouse. “And having your name called in a regional for the first time since I’ve been here… it’s going to be something I remember until I die.”
All things considered, Price felt pretty positive about his team’s chances on early Monday morning. Only once had a Big 12 team finished third or better in the regular-season standings and been left out of the NCAA tournament.
“But at the same time,” Price said, “a year ago we were the first .500 Big 12 team that’s never gotten in. So until you actually hear your name called, you still have that reservation inside that this just may be a devastating bracket.”
This time, the Jayhawks heard their name, but they did land in a rather daunting region. Kentucky is one of a record 10 Southeastern Conference teams in the field.
The Wildcats are led by two-way star A.J. Reed, the front-runner for national player of the year and a potential first-round pick in June’s Major League Baseball draft. On the mound, Reed is 11-2 with a 2.10 ERA, but he’s even more destructive at the plate. He enters the NCAA tournament with a .351 average, 23 home runs and 70 RBIs.
Louisville, meanwhile, was in the College World Series last season, while Kent State made a surprise run to Omaha in 2012.
“The great thing about playing in the Big 12 Conference, it prepares you to play in the NCAA tournament,” said Price, who has led the Jayhawks to three NCAA appearances since 2006. “The competition we face will be no better than what we’ve faced the last nine weeks in conference.”
Pac-12 champion Oregon State, 42-12, received the top seed for the NCAA tournament over SEC regular-season winner Florida, 40-21.