It pains Kansas State baseball coach Brad Hill to admit it, but he will use the Big 12 Tournament as motivation this weekend.
If the Wildcats win their final home series, a three-game set with the Kansas Jayhawks which starts Friday, their odds of participating in the eight-team conference tournament improve dramatically. A series loss could drop K-State to the bottom of the league standings and out of the postseason.
“That is kind of where we are at,” Hill said. “It’s the position we put ourselves in. We played really good baseball, and then unfortunately Saturday and Sunday really got away from us down in Oklahoma. Through Friday we had really played good baseball for about four or five weeks and felt good about ourselves. We have to recover.”
Hill and the K-State players had bigger aspirations when the season began, but they have not lost hope for a late turnaround. They are out to prove they are better than their 24-25 record.
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It’s a rallying cry K-State fans have heard before this athletic cycle.
First, the Wildcats football team set its sights on becoming bowl eligible after a 3-6 start. Then members of the men’s basketball team openly talked about their desire to play in the NIT when it became apparent a NCAA Tournament berth was out of reach. Bill Snyder guided the football team to the Liberty Bowl and a 6-7 finish. Bruce Weber’s team fell short of the postseason at 17-16. Now it’s the baseball team’s turn.
That combination leaves K-State’s three most prominent men’s teams in danger of combining for a losing record for the first time since 2003, when baseball (15-37), basketball (13-17) and football (11-2) finished 39-56. A year ago, they finished .500 with 51 wins and 51 losses. The three teams are currently 47-48.
It’s a far cry from 2013, when the Wildcats dominated the Big 12 in all three sports, joining Texas as the only school to win Big 12 championships in baseball, men’s basketball and football during the same athletic year. Back then, the basketball team (27-8) reached the NCAA Tournament, the football team (11-2) played in the Fiesta Bowl and baseball (45-19) made a Super Regional. Their combined record: 83-29.
Fans dubbed the accomplishment “3MAW,” a slogan you still see on T-shirts across town.
Celebratory merchandise is harder to find this year.
Still, the Bat Cats can end the season on an upswing and finish with a winning record. They have won 11 of their past 17 games, and they are optimistic they can make some noise in the Big 12 Tournament if they make it that far. Basketball and football results mean little to them.
“We know that the winner of this series will probably have a great shot of getting into the conference tournament,” K-State outfielder Clayton Dalrymple said. “That is the goal, to get the opportunity to go to the postseason. So we know that this is huge. We always say the next game of the season is the biggest game of the season, and that definitely applies here.”
“They are our in-state rivals and it means a little extra. We want to show them who is the best college in the state of Kansas, as far as baseball goes.”
Hill hopes the Wildcats can continue their late surge. He is coaching a young roster, and players have fought back from an 0-8 start in the Big 12. They have also dealt with injuries and will be without infielders Steve Serratore and Jake Wodtke against Kansas.
“You like to think you have seen some progress,” Hill said, “some kids not making the same mistakes they made earlier.”
K-State players get another chance to prove their progress this weekend. Their postseason chances may depend on it.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett