MANHATTAN — There was a time not long ago when Adam Muenster dreaded the start of conference play.
As a freshman without a set position on the Kansas State baseball team, he took a redshirt and watched from the dugout as the Wildcats suffered mounting losses against Big 12 opponents.
Back then, K-State had yet to play in the NCAA Tournament and had only once qualified for the Big 12 tournament. The Wildcats were overmatched, and Muenster knew it.
"We were bottom of the barrel every year," he said.
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But coach Brad Hill convinced Muenster, and several others like him, that it could change with a few years of hard work. In time, they could compete in the Big 12 and be a part of the NCAA Tournament. They could turn it all around.
Five years later, Hill's words are proving true.
On Wednesday, the Wildcats spent their afternoon on a bus headed for Fayetteville, Ark., where they will play in their second straight NCAA regional starting Friday.
"It's a huge turnaround," senior catcher Daniel Dellasega said. "I've been here a while and it's a complete 180 from what it used to be. Competing in the Big 12 was tough my first year. I don't even remember how many wins we got. This year the mindset of winning in the Big 12 and getting to a regional and a super regional is just totally different."
Indeed, winning is now expected at K-State, and those who weren't around for the struggles chuckle when told that wasn't always the case.
But looking back, Hill admits selling recruits on K-State wasn't an easy task when he came to Manhattan in 2004. Having little success or tradition to pitch to high school prospects, he had to target recruits wisely and sell them on the future.
"That's what you recruited them on," Hill said. "The opportunity to build a program."
Slowly but surely, they did just that. Hill began attracting better players, and has helped 18 Wildcats get selected in the major-league draft. A handful more will soon join that group.
Talent has been coming in for some time now, but what players say helped K-State more than anything was their tenacity. Walking into a rebuilding situation, they were in no mood to take a leisurely approach to practice or games.
"We play harder than a lot of other people out there," Muenster said. "That's something we really hang our hat on."
That effort began to pay off in 2007, when the Wildcats made it to their second Big 12 Tournament. They have qualified for the event every year since, and have become a regular in the national polls.
"It took a couple of my first years to really get it moving," Dellasega said. "But it's good to know I helped start something here that I know will keep going after I leave."
With that in mind, Hill thinks his job will be easier from here on. He says K-State's recent success has had a tremendous impact on the recruiting trail. Players that once ignored his phone calls are now committing.
He believes his incoming recruiting class could be the best he's brought to K-State, and with another successful season he's hoping to build on this class next year with a more attractive sales pitch.
"Now we sell them on the fact that we have accomplished it," Hill said. "We want to continue it. We want to go to the next step."
Muenster likes the sound of that. If he were about to join the program instead of leave it, he says he would look forward to every game on the schedule.
"I wouldn't want to be in any other position," he said. "I would feel like I was in good hands."