Manhattan Catbackers Baseball Camp

K-State freshman pitcher Jordan Wicks tosses balls up for kids to hit during the Manhattan Catbackers baseball camp at Frank Anneberg Park in August 2018. Wicks won the Big 12’s freshman of the year award last year. This season, he hopes to build of that stellar debut campaign.

Ask those closest to Jordan Wicks and it becomes abundantly clear how competitive the guy is. The lefty pitcher is coming off a wildly successful freshman campaign at Kansas State, after all, and he has a Big 12 Freshman of the Year award to show for it.

His catcher, senior Chris Ceballos, calls him a “bulldog.” His head coach, Pete Hughes, says Wicks is “wired” to improve.

When Wicks tossed a five-hit shutout in a win over Texas last spring, Ceballos pointed to Wicks’ “fire,” noting how adamant Wicks was about staying in the game.

All this, though, begs the question: Does Wicks internalize his competitiveness or wear it on his sleeve?

Standing in K-State’s revamped team meeting room in Tointon Family Stadium earlier this month, Ceballos doesn’t hesitate.

“Oh,” Ceballos said, grinning. “He definitely shows it.”

Ceballos chuckled.

“The dude’s a loud guy, but I love him,” Ceballos said. “He’s definitely a leader with his work ethic and all that stuff. He definitely shows that he’s going to be a bulldog.”

When Wicks makes the first start of his sophomore campaign on Sunday, the finale of K-State’s season-opening series against UT-Rio Grande Valley, he plans to parlay that competitive fire — that “bulldog” mentality — into a 1-0 record.

“I think Jordan’s going to be great for us again this year,” Hughes said. “That’s who he is. It’s how he’s built. It’s how he’s wired.”

There are a couple things to understand about Wicks — “Wicksy,” according to Ceballos — and why he’s so confident headed into this new season.

In 2019, he enjoyed one of the best freshman years in program history. He was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year, sure, but he also was a unanimous selection to the Big 12 All-Freshman Team. A second-team All-Big 12 pick, Wicks also set program records for freshmen in a few departments.

Those include innings pitched (84.2) and strikeouts (86) — both of which had stood since 1973.

His final numbers from last year: A 6-3 record with a 3.61 ERA, 86 strikeouts and 26 walks.

The crazy part is Wicks says he had no idea he would post those sorts of stats. He was confident, as he always is, but he was a freshman. Hughes was entering his first season at the helm of the program.

Too many unknowns, in other words.

“Honestly, I was hoping to have an impact,” Wicks said, “but did I think it would be that much of an impact? I didn’t know, because coming in as a freshman, you have no idea what to expect coming into this kind of college baseball at this level. I had no idea what the opponents were going to be like.

“People my freshman year asked me all the time, like, ‘How are you guys going to be?’ I was like, ‘I have no clue.’”

He’s got a clue now.

That’s the thing, though. Wicks now has a balance to strike. He wants to draw confidence from that sterling freshman season, but not so much that it affects his sophomore year.

So he came to a conclusion: He’ll remember certain things about his freshman year — “the experience and the knowledge of what to expect in certain scenarios,” he said — but he’ll flush the rest.

“The day you get content in this game is the day that tons of people pass you by,” Wicks said. “That’ll never happen with me. I’m always looking for — even if I have a good start — the three batters that were bad as opposed to the ones that were really good, you know? Always something to fix. Always something to work on. That’s always how it’s been.”

About those improvements — he made a few this offseason.

To make one of them, he hit the weight room. Wanted to get stronger. Check and check.

“Really feel like I accomplished what I wanted to in the weight room,” Wicks said. “Just really got after it this offseason. Happy about that.”

The other improvement was less grunt work and more skill refinement.

Last year, Wicks only threw a few pitches. He fed right-handed hitters fastballs and changeups. He offered lefties fastballs and cutters. He changed things up — no pun intended — every now and then, but that was usually the plan.

Now Wicks has added a new pitch to his repertoire: A breaking ball.

He felt compelled to develop it because he feared becoming too one-dimensional. So when last season ended, he consulted Hughes and assistant coach Buck Taylor.

Months later, he’s ready to unfurl a new wrinkle to his arsenal.

Here’s the kicker: Wicks still plans on sticking to fastballs and changeups. That, he said, is still “going to be the thing.”

It just helps to have another thing in his back pocket.

“It really adds a third dimension to the weapons that we’re able to attack with,” Wicks said. “It opens up a whole other door that I’ve found out this fall and into the first couple starts this spring. I’m really excited about that, really excited to add that element into my game this spring.”

One of the last reasons why Wicks — and everyone around him — feels so strongly about this new season involves the Wildcats’ pitching staff this year.

K-State’s weekend rotation likely will look something like this: Carson Seymour on Fridays, Connor McCullough on Saturdays and Wicks on Sundays.

Senior Kasey Ford and junior Zak Herbers also will be in the mix, Hughes said, though those roles will cement themselves the more each pitcher throws.

The point is that the Wildcats feel far better about their pitching staff than they did around this time last year.

That’s good news for Wicks, mainly because he’ll be able to exit contests when the time is right. Pitch count is getting high? No problem. Having a rough outing? No biggie.

“I think he’ll be better than he was last year,” Hughes said, “because his teammates are going to be able to protect him a little bit more with the depth, where his outings don’t have to get stretched out. Yeah, he’s good on his 115th or 125th pitch on that day because he’s a competitor like no one else — and his adrenaline and all that stuff, and his will to win — but it affects him a month and a half down the road, you know? It wears you out after awhile to add all that up.”

Even when that happened last year, though, Wicks persisted. If he was tired late in outings, he rarely showed it. Even more seldom did he let fatigue affect his pitching.

Now, Wicks’ support system is stronger. He is, too. His arsenal is deeper. He can rely on experience.

Add in his competitiveness — which he says he acquired when he was younger, competing against older brother Kyle in various sports — and one really starts to understand why Wicks feels so confident headed into a new season.

“Going into this year, we’re not going into it hoping to make the Big 12 Tournament,” Wicks said. “We’re coming after people this year. We know the weapons we have, and we’re really excited about it.”

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