As far as college baseball players go, Newman pitcher Kyle Burkhardt is about as wisened as they come. So when he says something feels right, it’s an opinion not to be taken lightly.
“I’ve seen the good and the bad,” said Burkhardt, a fifth-year senior from Topeka. “And because of all the ups and downs, I know when something’s good. And this year has been a joy … working with everybody to get where we want to be has been a lot of fun.”
The Jets (23-14 overall, 17-13 Heartland) enter this weekend’s series at Texas-Permian Basin in third place in the Heartland Conference and trying to close out what could be a historic finish to this season. A top-four finish would guarantee them the school’s first league tournament berth.
“That’s absolutely a goal for us,” second-year coach Zane Ehling said. “We need to take that step. We haven’t clinched anything, so from here on forward is very important.”
Ehling, 28, is a Hutchinson native and played at Butler Community College and Newman. And his role in the Jets’ evolution has been a decidedly grass-roots campaign – 26 of the 32 players on the Newman roster have ties to Kansas either through high school, the Jayhawk Conference, or both.
Newman’s top hitter, junior catcher Ruben Marrero (Cowley) and their top two pitchers, senior Brandon Droge (Johnson County) and Burkhardt (Highland) all played in the Jayhawk.
The weekend combination of Droge (5.32 ERA, 4-4, 35 strikeouts), a 6-foot-4 left-hander, and Burkhardt (4.53 ERA, 4-4, 38 strikeouts), a 6-foot right-hander who consistently throws in the high 80s and low 90s, has kept teams off-balance all year.
“We have two guys right there who I both consider our No. 1,” Ehling said. “Those two really are our leaders on the mound every weekend and we expect a lot out of them.”
The third pitcher in weekend series has usually been Augusta native Jacob Furr, a 6-2 sophomore with a 3-2 record and a 2.68 ERA.
“When Brandon’s fastball is working he can pretty much put it where he wants and it makes it hard for teams to get comfortable in the box,” said Burkhardt, who sat out 2010 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. “Then they’ve got me, who is smaller and maybe throws harder … I try to fill it up a little bit.”
Marrero, from Bayomon, Puerto Rico, was a second-team All-Jayhawk East selection last year and leads the Jets in batting average (.340), hits (34) and runs (25).
“After guys play for (Cowley coach Dave) Burroughs, they’re going to be tough, and that’s Ruben,” Ehling said. “If you can have that toughness and understand the details of the game, you’re going to be very valuable to your team. We’re lucky to have Ruben here.”
Another thing the Jets are lucky to have this year is a place for their fans to sit during home games. Permanent bleachers were put into McCarthy Field for the first time this year.
“Last year we had some portable ones that were like three rows that we would just drag out and stick there,” Ehling said. “Having those new stands that are 10 rows high and having some concrete back there … kind of gave the place a new feeling. It feels more like a real home now.”