Ryan Zeferjahn smiled for the photo in a red Kansas basketball jersey.
This was his seventh birthday — some 14 years ago — and the Topeka kid with the buzz cut was about to celebrate with a Jayhawk cake.
Zeferjahn grins when thinking back to these childhood memories. Back in the day, Jeff Graves and Darnell Jackson were his favorite KU players ... and his No. 11 Aaron Miles jersey was one of his most-worn shirts.
“Obviously, I wanted to play basketball here growing up,” he said, “but that didn’t work.”
The fallback plan didn’t turn out to be too shabby.
Zeferjahn, a 6-foot-5 junior, still ended up at his “dream school” three years ago when he decided to attend KU.
The focus, though, turned to his second-favorite sport.
And the one that will make him a top draft pick in less than two weeks’ time.
“It’s been an honor and a privilege to coach him,” KU coach Ritch Price said. “He’s going to be a big-leaguer. He’s going to have a long career.”
The path to this point is one few other top recruits have taken.
Zeferjahn, from Seaman High in Topeka, could have technically been a professional already. He was part of a stacked Kansas preps class in 2016 that included Riley Pint and Joey Wentz — both picked in the top 40 of that draft.
Later that weekend, Zeferjahn was selected in the 37th round by the Tampa Bay Rays, rejecting that offer (and also falling down draft boards) because he was so committed to his college choice: KU.
That decision was a surprise in itself. Zeferjahn was pursued by top Big 12 schools (like Oklahoma) and also had interest from SEC programs, where he could have played in a warm-weather state.
In the end, though, KU was his choice, giving him the opportunity to play in front of family members each week.
“People were like, ‘Why are you going to Kansas? They’re not that successful,’” Zeferhahn said. “I was like, ‘Well, I love the place. It was a great fit for me, so I’m going to try to change the program.’”
Doing that took some time.
Zeferjahn arrived with a vicious fastball but little command, with Price saying his “mechanics were a mess.” He couldn’t repeat his delivery, which left baseballs flying in all directions.
Catcher Jaxx Groshans knew this as well as anyone. In one of his first bullpen sessions with Zeferjahn his freshman year, he crouched to receive a fastball ... then ducked in fear when Zeferjahn’s first pitch sailed high and away, plunking a dummy meant to simulate a hitter.
Groshans looked up when it was all over. The ball had ricocheted off the mannequin’s head.
“It scared the (crap) out of me,” Groshans said.
Some of the same fear spread to teammates. Pitching coach Ritch Graves would often ask KU’s hitters to stand in the batter’s box for pitcher throwing sessions; there weren’t often volunteers for Zeferjahn.
Batting practice with “Zef” also could be challenging too.
“You knew it was going to be hard, but you didn’t know where it was going,” KU shortstop Benjamin Sems said. “ ... I remember facing him, and I was like, ‘Please don’t hit me. Please don’t hit me.’ I was in the corner of the batter’s box, just waiting for that.”
After a rough freshman season — he posted a 6.19 ERA in 2017 — Zeferjahn regained some confidence that summer while pitching in the collegiate Cape Cod League.
From there, he’s made adjustments the last two years to continue his ascent.
Zeferjahn had a “pretty good” sophomore year by his standards — notching 100 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings with a 4.48 ERA — before an even better junior season.
Now, his 96-98 mph fastball is backed up by three legitimate off-speed offerings. The nastiest of which, according to Groshans, is a split-change — a pitch that Zeferjahn developed after altering his grip a year ago.
“It’s kind of a guessing game. I throw (the glove) down, then I’m like, ‘All right. (Shoot.) Which way is it going to go?’” Groshans said. “It looks like a knuckleball, almost. Like an 86 mph knuckleball.”
Zeferjahn also has increased his knowledge of the game. He’s begun to study hitters more — while watching TV at home and on the mound — while getting a better sense for which pitch to throw in a given situation.
Thanks to that advanced feel, Graves has allowed Zeferjahn to call his own pitches most games ... a benefit not every starter earns.
It all has worked. Zeferjahn’s ERA is down to 3.38, while just last week he became the first KU pitcher ever to post 100 strikeouts in two consecutive seasons.
Zeferjahn also became an all-Big 12 first-team selection this week.
“It’s really refreshing,” Price said, “to see a Kansas kid grow up a Jayhawk fan and stay home.”
Zeferjahn, who will start KU’s Thursday game in the Big 12 Tournament, likely won’t remain around these parts much longer.
With the draft less than two weeks away, the buzz about Zeferjahn’s future continues to build. One day, he’ll talk to a former baseball coach about what he’s heard from scouts, while another day, he’ll hear from friends mentioning what they’ve been reading about him in articles.
“I take that in, but I don’t show emotion. I’m pretty calm about it,” Zeferjahn said. “I’ve given myself a chance to be where I am, so (I’m) just letting the pieces fall in place.”
June 1 still promises to be a momentous day for both Zeferjahn and KU.
With a little boost, Zeferjahn could be KU’s highest MLB Draft pick. The Jayhawks’ current top spot is held by Tom Gorzelanny, who was taken 45th overall in 2003. Jimmy Walker (No. 91 in 1993) ranks second.
For Price, Zeferjahn’s success story could have big-picture ramifications, perhaps helping to convince other talented local kids that KU could be a fit for them.
Zeferjahn, for his part, seems like he could be a valuable spokesman.
Things have turned out just as planned at KU ... in his second-favorite sport.
“The three years here,” Zeferjahn said, “have been the best three years of my life.”