MANHATTAN — The Kansas State baseball team is on the verge of making history.
With one more victory, it will clinch at least a share of its first conference championship since 1933 and add an exclamation point to an already stellar year for the Wildcats’ athletic department.
First, Collin Klein led the football team to a Big 12 title in December. Then Rodney McGruder guided the men’s basketball team to a Big 12 championship in March. Now Jared King, Austin Fisher and Jake Matthys can make it a trifecta.
It would be a rare accomplishment. Only one school has won Big 12 championships in football, men’s basketball and baseball in the same academic year — Texas in 2005-06.
The Wildcats play a three-game series with Oklahoma beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday night at Tointon Stadium.
“It is absolutely the biggest series I have ever played in my life,” junior outfielder Jared King said.
Here is what is on the line: K-State (37-15, 14-7 Big 12) holds a two-game lead over Oklahoma and West Virginia in the conference standings. The Wildcats can clinch an outright championship with two victories or one victory and a West Virginia loss. One victory and a West Virginia loss would make it a shared title. Oklahoma and West Virginia can both pass K-State if the Wildcats lose all three.
Excitement will be high. The crowds will be large. And the pressure will be on.
K-State players say bring it on.
“There will be pressure, absolutely,” King said. “The biggest thing will be blocking that out. We want to win, obviously, but if you start thinking about that too much it confuses you and prevents you from doing the things you need to do day by day to win. We’ve been focusing on taking things day by day.”
That approach has helped K-State get where it is today. Though the Wildcats have found success under baseball coach Brad Hill in the past, playing in the NCAA Tournament three times, this might be his finest team.
The Wildcats are one of the nation’s best hitting teams with King, Fisher and Ross Kivett leading the way. All three players carry batting averages of .333 or higher, and provide consistent offense at the top of K-State’s lineup.
King has matured into a leader on and off the field. Fisher, batting .358, is difficult to keep off the bases. Kivett has scored 45 runs while hitting .354.
On the mound, freshman reliever Matthys has turned plenty of heads as a freshman by going 7-0 with a 1.77 ERA. Levi MaVorhis (5-0, 2.91), Joe Flattery (3-4, 4.36) and Blake McFadden (5-2, 3.93) are the scheduled starters this weekend.
A year after struggling to a losing record, the Wildcats have thrived with a young roster and aggressive approach.
“We knew we could do it before the season,” Fisher said. “We always had confidence in it.”
Fans are beginning to notice. Hill and Fisher said strangers are beginning to approach them in grocery stores, and wish them luck on their way to class. Such treatment is usually reserved for football and basketball players. But with the baseball team closing in on a Big 12 championship, and possibly a host site in the NCAA regionals, they are becoming recognizable as well.
The question now is, can they continue winning now that everyone is watching?
“We will find out this weekend,” Hill said. “A neat thing is we had a huge crowd here against Texas Tech (in April). This isn’t going to be the first crowd we have had of 3,000 people. We have had that a couple times this year. So we have seen big crowds here and had a great win against Texas Tech with a walkoff.
“Hopefully we just think about the process and not think about end results before they happen. This is going to be a process for us to accomplish what they want to.”
After watching other teams succeed across campus, Hill said he may borrow some coaching techniques from Bill Snyder and Bruce Weber this weekend.
The football team hadn’t won a conference championship since 2003. The basketball team’s last league title came in 1977.
Now the baseball team is hoping to end a drought that goes back 80 years. And add to a trophy collection at the same time.
“We want to celebrate with the entire town if we win,” Fisher said. “We just want to get one game.… It will feel great to get this off our back,” Fisher said. “Hopefully we can do it in Game 1.”