Pete Hughes thinks K-State baseball team can reach NCAA Tournament
A question that seemed laughable three weeks ago is now being used as a rallying cry of sorts by the Kansas State baseball team.
Can the Wildcats reach the NCAA Tournament in their first season under new coach Pete Hughes?
“If we win every series on the way out, don’t you think so?” Hughes said. “Yeah. There’s a long way to go, right? But our goal is to keep winning series and if you look at who we have ahead of us ... Just because Kansas State hasn’t been in the conversation for a while doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be in the conversation now.”
To fully appreciate the unexpected position K-State currently finds itself in as the team prepares for a three-game home series against Oklahoma this weekend, you must go back to a lopsided loss against Creighton earlier this month.
It was the low point of the season, and the Wildcats looked done. The defeat dropped their record to 13-20 and worse days appeared on the horizon. They had lost nine of their past 10 games, mostly by uncompetitive scores. They were 1-5 in the Big 12 and morale was low.
A turnaround seemed unlikely with upcoming series against ranked Big 12 foes TCU and Texas.
But the Wildcats went on a winning streak anyway.
Three weeks after most assumed this group would miss the Big 12 Tournament as the conference’s last-place team, K-State has improbably won seven of nine, including four over ranked teams, to climb out of the league cellar and challenge for its first postseason appearance since 2013.
K-State is still only 20-22 on the season and 5-7 in Big 12 play, so the Wildcats can’t stop now. But with a RPI of 70 they have a lot more to play for today than they did following that ugly loss to Creighton.
“It’s high,” junior catcher Chris Ceballos said of the team’s current morale. “We are having fun every single time we step on the field, every practice. It’s really high energy. If we keep that, it is going to keep us going the rest of the season.”
So what changed?
Though there is no single factor to point to as reason for the turnaround, everyone agrees things started to feel different when K-State bounced back from the Creighton series by beating Omaha 7-2 in one of the quickest games of the season.
That led to a 6-4 victory at Texas, followed by a 2-0 win over the Longhorns and then a shutout victory at Nebraska. All of a sudden, the Wildcats had confidence.
Hughes had also suddenly found a lineup that clicked. His biggest challenge this season has been finding ways to manufacture enough offense to support a pair of impressive freshmen pitchers.
Griffin Hassall (2.33 ERA) and Jordan Wicks (2.52 ERA with 66 strikeouts) have been hard for opposing teams to hit all year, but it wasn’t until recently that their talents truly began to show and the Wildcats started winning big games. Their jobs have become much easier with K-State hitting home runs in nine straight games with a lineup that Hughes jokes he stumbled upon by picking names out of a hat.
He moved Cameron Thompson from cleanup to leadoff and Will Brennan from the fifth spot to the two hole. And he is now asking Zach Kokoska and Ceballos to drive them in.
“It takes a while to see what kind of guys you have and what kind of skill set they can bring to your team,” Hughes said. “To maximize their abilities you have to put them in the right order in the lineup, and it does take some time to watch. It took us 30 games to figure out where guys get settled in. It’s unconventional our lineup that is in there, that’s for sure. But it works.”
The new approach has led to big results. Hassall and Wicks have claimed back-to-back Big 12 Newcomer of the Week honors and Kokoska and Ceballos both lead the team in home runs. Hughes is proud of his players for trusting the process to this point.
“It’s part of building a culture and you have to learn how to fail, unfortunately, to get where you want to go,” Hughes said. “We controlled two things when things were bad — our attitude and our work ethic. We are going to have good team guys and we are going to work like crazy. I kept telling everybody to keep their head up and that they would end up in a good place if they kept that mentality and they did, so good for our guys.”
K-State’s hot streak coincides with a juicy matchup for Hughes this weekend, which will have sellout crowds in attendance Friday at Saturday at Tointon Family Stadium. He coached the Sooners for four seasons before resigning with a 128-107-1 record, taking a year off and then taking the job in Manhattan.
But he doesn’t need any extra motivation at the moment.
“I only get motivated by inspirational things and events and organizations and that’s not the case here,” Hughes said. “I get focused on helping my team play better every day and just trying to get this program to the next level. That is what this weekend does for me. It just gives us a chance to keep building this thing.”
Another series win would leave K-State at .500 or better and make its NCAA Tournament even more realistic.
Things have changed a lot in the past month.
“We had a lot of losses there for a little bit, but we just stuck with it and kept grinding,” Ceballos said. “I think that has been what is helping us win, not really getting down on ourselves and getting after it every day on the field. That is what you are seeing a lot more of. That work ethic is really starting to pay off.”