Last year was a season of firsts for the Kansas State baseball team.
The Wildcats won their first conference title in 80 years, hosted an NCAA regional for the first time and advanced to the Super Regional for the first time in school history.
But it’s where the season ended, right there in Corvallis, Ore., against Oregon State — one game shy of the College World Series in Omaha — that has stuck with senior second baseman Ross Kivett.
“I never watch it, I didn’t watch one College World Series game — I think about it every day,” Kivett said. “Should I? Probably not. You break up with a girlfriend after five years, you going to think about it? Probably, unfortunately, she’s not coming back.
“Last year was very special. Corvallis hangs in everyone’s locker and I don’t think we’re going to lack motivation because of it.”
The result of last season has been more firsts for the Wildcats. Kivett, the reining Big 12 Player of the Year — was drafted in the 10th round by his hometown Cleveland Indians last June, but opted to return for another shot at Omaha.
With Kivett and the entire infield back, as well as freshman All-American Jake Matthys and Kansas City Royals’ draft pick Shane Conlon, the Wildcats were picked as the preseason favorite in the Big 12 for the first time ever. And they’ve checked in on each of the preseason polls, another first.
There will be plenty attention on the program when the Wildcats open the season next week on Feb. 14 at Cal Poly.
“This is the first year that we’ve had a target on our back,” Conlon said. “We always go play teams that have targets on their backs. This year it’s definitely going to be a lot different. Teams will come and throw their number ones at us all the time. We do have the target on our back this year, and I kind of like that. I have always liked that.
“If you ask all these guys, I think that they will like that, too. We are just really excited to get started and get out of this cold weather.”
But coach Brad Hill doesn’t expect anything to change this season, even with the expectations and even with the players the Wildcats lost — notably the entire outfield in Jared King, Tanner Witt and Jon Davis.
Hill said he expects the team to keep its blue-collar work ethic and to keep the routines that made it successful last season. To do that, the team will rely on leadership from its experienced players to help groom both the inexperienced outfield and seven freshmen pitchers.
So to sum it up, nothing has changed in Hill’s point of view, and it’s the attitude he’s trying to pass down to his team.
But one thing they aren’t going to do, is ignore the fact that the expectations are there, and they have to be acknowledged.
“We know that they are there, but we just take it one day at a time,” sophomore pitcher Levi MaVorhis said. “(It’s about) just working on what you need to do to get better that day and you don’t focus on what is down the road.”
The surprise of last season was the production the Wildcats got from Matthys, a freshman pitcher who came from a high school team that never finished with a record above .500 during his four years as a player.
But from the day he stepped on campus in Manhattan, Matthys was a player that asked for the ball at the end of the game and wanted to be a closer.
Now that there are both team and personal expectations, Matthys admitted he’s enjoying it.
“I feel like we want to live up to what the expectations are,” Matthys said. “Everybody expects us to get to Omaha. We expect us to get to Omaha and anything short of that isn’t good enough for us.
“Everyone has been working hard in the weight room, on the field, conditioning. Everyone is very determined to make that next step and get to Omaha.”
While making it to Omaha will be the end goal of this season’s high expectations, Kivett said he wouldn’t deem it as Omaha or bust for the program, even if that might be the case for him.
For now, the senior said he and his teammates are enjoying the attention the program is receiving locally as the season approaches.
“There is a lot of hype and it’s fun,” he said. “It took four years, but we are excited to get this going. I think that it’s special because this is my last one. My mom and dad are going to get to come out to a few more games than they usually do. I get to hang out with my best friends for another year and then on to real life.”