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Cats still fighting to salvage season

By Joel Jellison

It’s easy to remember just a season ago, when the Kansas State baseball team was the darling of the Big 12 and had its most storied year in program history.

But it’s also easy to forget the year K-State had in 2012 — the first losing season since 2004.

Senior catcher Blair DeBord said they affectionately refer to it as the 27-31 year. The Wildcats barely scraped into the Big 12 tournament, with just a 7-17 conference record, and missed making an NCAA regional for the third consecutive year.

The Wildcats entered this season with the highest expectations in program history, only to struggle out of the gate to a 1-7 record after a trip to California. With three Big 12 series left, including this weekend at TCU, K-State is ninth in the league, sitting at 23-22, 4-11, and at risk of missing the Big 12 tournament for the first time since 2004.

The Wildcats have won just one Big 12 series, and lost the last two on the road, but senior Ross Kivett said they are focused on doing what it takes to turn it all around.

“We’re just focused on ourselves and playing as hard as we can, and controlling what we can control,” he said. “What we can control is going out there and playing with our hair on fire and giving us the best chance to win. It doesn’t get easier. This is probably the best league in the country, and you face good teams every night.”

The remaining slate is far from easy for the Wildcats, as they return from Fort Worth, Texas, for a game at Wichita State, then host Oklahoma State and Texas in back-to-back series to cap their schedule.

That pits the Wildcats against the No. 1, 2 and 4 teams in the current league standings.

“I think that’s good for us,” Kivett said. “If you want to keep on playing, you’re going to have to beat teams. It’s not really gut check, but if it’s meant to be, you’re going to beat good teams.”

But it’s easy to look at what the Wildcats are going through right now, and compare it to two years ago.

Many players who are still around from that team have said the Wildcats lacked leadership. DeBord doesn’t think that’s the case this time around.

“There was obviously a point where you could tell people were saying, ‘whatever, I’m going to start playing for myself,’” DeBord said. “These guys haven’t done that, and it would gave been easy for them to do that. That’s been really encouraging.”

Kivett said the difference between this season and 2012 is night and day. He said that team quit halfway through the year — something he said is hard to admit. It was miserable to go to practices or games.

But this team has never reached that point, and with what he learned as a sophomore that season, he’s made sure of it.

“I still haven’t quit on this team, no one has,” he said. “We still believe we have a chance to at least, at lest, make a run at the Big 12 tournament.”

But the comparison still does lie with the preseason expectations. Coming off two straight regional appearances, 2012 was built as the year that the Wildcats might make their run at hosting their first regional in program history.

They never came close to that reality, nor any regional at all. Going into this season, there was talk of a regional and super regional in Manhattan, and even a trip to the College World Series in Omaha.

But after eight games in California, the Wildcats were 1-7, and the expectations quickly began to look less than realistic.

“The game humbled us pretty quick after our first trip,” senior Shane Conlon said. “Every one was talking about it, people were talking — I guess we didn’t really walk the walk. All those high expectations — we are what we are right now so you can’t really think about that.”

It wasn’t just the team expectations, either. There were personal expectations and goals that seemed to fade in those first eight games. DeBord said before the trip his swing felt as good as he could remember, if not better. Then when they got out to the west coast, the ball went from looking like a beach ball to a golf ball.

“It’s really hard not only that you had expectations from outside the team, but when you yourself feel you’re going to do well,” he said. “It really humbles you and you have to try not to do too much, and that’s human nature. We had to relax and be ourselves.”

Kivett said they still feel like anything can happen, and he won’t put anything past the baseball gods, including a 14-game winning streak that would have K-State winning the Big 12 tournament title and getting an automatic bid for an NCAA regional.

It’s currently a three-team race for the last two spots in the eight-team tournament field, with Oklahoma and Baylor at five wins in the conference, one game ahead of K-State. The Bears and Sooners play this weekend.

Conlon said they will be keeping their eyes off the Big 12 standings, and stay focused on doing whatever it takes to take on of those eight spots for the Big 12 tournament.

“It’s down to our last three series and we still have a chance to make the Big 12 tournament, and at this point that’s our best way to get it into a regional,” he said. “Our focus has been you have to take one game at a time, because this thing can turn around at any moment.”

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