MANHATTAN — Jared King was the consensus pick to win Big 12 Player of the Year before the season.
Why? Simply put: the Kansas State center fielder appeared to have it all.
As a sophomore, he led the conference with a .378 average, seven home runs and 47 RBIs. As a freshman, he hit .307 and helped the Wildcats reach the NCAA Tournament.
Poised for an even better junior season, he entered the year surrounded by hype.
But when the regular season came to an end, King watched his teammate, leadoff hitter Ross Kivett, win the award. For some, that would be an awkward moment. It wasn’t for King.
“I thought it awesome,” King said. “Ross is one of my best friends and my roommate. It is always fun playing against him, and he has had all kinds of success this season. I’m proud of him. He earned it, and I couldn’t be happier for him.”
An early slump prevented King from claiming the award. His numbers — .337, six home runs and 48 RBIs — weren’t as strong as Kivett’s or fellow teammate Austin Fisher’s. But he was still an indispensible part of the Wildcats’ successful season.
He was one of the team’s top hitters, he improved on defense and he matured into a leader. K-State coach Brad Hill thinks King’s work ethic and the support he shows teammates is a big reason why the Wildcats won their first Big 12 championship and are preparing to host their first NCAA regional.
“As a leader, he has been tremendous,” Hill said. “When we were playing down in Oklahoma in front of my family, they couldn’t believe the difference in our team. They said they saw their tremendous love for each other. The guys are hugging after a big hit or a big play and the pitchers are coming in.
“That’s something we didn’t have last year. That was something my family picked up on, just how much we genuinely liked each other. That starts with Jared. When you have a star and a go-to guy on the team, he is the one everyone looks to. When he’s out there hugging other guys and giving everyone else credit, the rest of the team is going to follow.”
Improving team chemistry was one of King’s main goals. He blames last year’s losing record on poor morale.
No matter what happened this season, he wanted K-State to give max effort every inning.
“I think we all realized we have to buy in and be a team to be successful,” King said. “You can’t win a lot of games being individuals. We made a strong focal point to be strong as a team. We wanted to be the best unit we could and be close and have each other’s backs. Going through the lineup and knowing the next guy has your back, that trust has been the biggest difference.”
Things have been more fun this season, and the victories have followed.
Even though King’s numbers have dropped slightly, he enjoys winning more than putting up stats.
“Being able to experience all the success we have had with the team has helped me focus on the big picture rather than my individual performance,” King said. “I have been more of a team guy and going in and doing what I need to do to help the team win.”
That much was obvious at the Big 12 Tournament, when he tried to bunt late in a close game against Oklahoma.
The Wildcats lost, but not until they rallied from four runs down in the ninth inning and one run down in the 10th. King’s influence was noticeable.
“Early on there was a little bit of pressure on him,” Kivett said. “But we, as a unit, let him know, ‘Listen, Bub. You just do what you’ve got to do. We are going to pick you up if it doesn’t happen.’ The first few weeks he had a little jitters, but he has been lights out ever since. He’s been picking all of us up for the last month.
“This is the best team chemistry we’ve had. I know no matter what inning it is, this team isn’t quitting. Last year I didn’t feel that way. We would get down a little and just stay down. This year you are down four runs with an out in the bottom of the ninth and there is no worry. It’s just another day.”