Kansas University baseball players have some big shoes to fill this season.
Eight Jayhawks seven seniors and a drafted junior concluded their college careers, leaving plenty of holes to fill.
"We had a great senior class last year," KU coach Bobby Randall said. "You always wonder how you can replace that senior class. It seems like someone always steps up and fill those holes and, hopefully, they'll be bigger than the holes that are left. You're always surprised."
Even with the losses, Randall has several players back, including senior third baseman Ryan Klocksien, who had a team-high .321 batting average.
Other returnees, who started 20 or more games last year, include second baseman Casey Spanish, centerfielder Jason Appuhn, outfielder Matt Van Alsburg, first baseman Kevin Wheeler and outfielder Matt Tribble, last year's rookie-of-the-year honoree.
"We have candidates," Randall said. "It's not like we don't have anybody. I feel good about the nucleus of our team. There are a lot of young players in our program. We're counting on a lot of those guys and the kids we've recruited to come in and fill those spots."
One recruit won't be joining the team. Catcher Justin Humphries was drafted by Houston in the 22nd round and signed with the Astros. The other three newcomers pitchers Aaron Ledbetter and Andrew Lytle and catcher Cole Armstrong were also drafted but have not signed.
"I think that says a lot about our recruiting class coming in," Randall said. "We'll have to wait and see what those players look like in the fall, but there's no way of knowing. Right now, on paper, the recruiting class looks pretty good, but we'll know more next spring."
Five senior pitchers Dan Olson, Grant Williams, Randy Strann, Jeff Davis and Justin Wilcher will provide leadership, but Randall, who is 144-184 in six seasons at Kansas, is looking mostly for stability behind the plate.
KU has brought in three catchers to replace Brent Del Chiaro, an All-Big 12 honorable mention pick last season.
"The key for us is to find a replacement behind the plate," Randall said. "I think it will probably be a couple guys who will take that spot."
Del Chiaro, senior shortstop John Nelson and junior pitcher Doug Lantz were chosen in the June draft and fifth-year senior pitcher Pete Smart signed with the Milwaukee Brewers before the draft.
"I think one of the things that I was most happy about was to see Pete, John and Brent all get chances to play professional baseball," Randall said. "We lost a junior in the draft that'll be a big loss. He (Lantz) and Pete pitched a lot of innings, but that's the nature of college baseball.
"We lost a lot of good players, which means we developed a lot of good players. They left not just a hole, but a legacy for guys who follow behind them, and they left a little bit of unfinished business, too."
Randall was talking about KU's failure to qualify for the league tournament since 1997. Last year the Jayhawks were 19-7 against non-conference foes, but just 7-23 against Big 12 team and they finished in the conference basement.
"This Big 12 Conference has changed so much from the Big Eight," Randall said, "because if you're in the top five or six in the Big 12 Conference, it's not a conference standing, it's really a national ranking that you've achieved.
"They took five teams to the (regional) tournament out of our conference and I think we'd like to be in the top five in our conference. To finish that high would be a tremendous overachievement, but I know our players dream that."
One of those seven conference wins was against College World Series participant Nebraska, the Jayhawks' first victory over the Cornhuskers since 1997.
"It's been disappointing not to be in the tournament," Randall said, "but our goal's always been so much higher than the tournament. We've been close, but it doesn't matter how close you are if you don't make it."
Along with the legacy left by last year's seniors, Randall is counting on the Jayhawks' mental approach to help propel them into postseason play.
"I think the thing I bank on more than anything," the KU coach said, "is the character of the guys who are returning. In baseball, hope springs eternal and I love the guys on our team. They're a joy to coach and they work hard."