On the same day Russell Robinson and the three freshmen were sticking it to a mouthy Iowa State bunch in raucous Allen Fieldhouse, the Kansas University baseball team was on the West Coast, quietly flashing a sign it could be at the beginning of a special season.
The top of the order was due up for perennial power Stanford and KU closer Don Czyz took the mound to protect a 5-4 lead in the finale of a three-game series back on Feb. 11. A 1-2-3 inning gave KU the victory in the decisive game of the series and improved the Jayhawks' record to 6-1.
It was no fluke.
A senior, Czyz leads the nation with 18 saves. He has a 1.62 ERA, and remains as good a symbol of this NCAA Tournament team as anyone. A 6-foot-2, 200-pound native of Overland Park, Czyz throws hard, but that's not what makes him stand out in pressure spots. His aggressiveness and confidence give him the ninth-inning edge.
In 61 innings, Czyz has allowed just 14 walks to go with 59 strikeouts. He believes in his stuff and isn't afraid to challenge any hitter. The same can be said of KU fourth-year coach Ritch Price. He believes in his players and isn't afraid to challenge any team.
Price's aggressive scheduling has played a big part in Kansas developing into the team that won the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City and will open NCAA Tournament play as a No. 2 seed Friday at the Corvallis (Ore.) regional against Hawaii.
"We go out and play in the biggest venues in the nation, and it's not a big deal," Czyz said. "We play in front of 8,000 fans, and we're not scared. We just play our game and let the other team play their game. It's really fun when you play in front of 8,000 fans. Four years ago, it was hard to play there. You got nervous, and you didn't play your best game. Now you're seeing our best performances in front of the biggest crowds."
How soon did the Jayhawks have an idea this could be a year that would last longer than most KU baseball seasons?
"I think from game No. 1," Czyz said. "You could kind of feel it in the intrasquad scrimmages being more competitive right off the bat. Going to Stanford, winning a series there. Taking series wherever we went. You could see things coming together and it was really fun."
The growth of the KU program in Price's four seasons in charge has followed the same path as Czyz's improvement. Price has been around long enough to know a Big 12 pitcher when he sees one. And in Czyz he didn't see one after watching him throw in fall workouts as a freshman.
Price told him he wasn't ready to pitch in the Big 12 and advised him to go to junior college.
Price recalled: "He told me, 'Coach, I'm not going. I came here to be a student and I'm not going to junior college. I came here to get better development.' He's improved more than any player I've coached in 28 years."
All four schools competing in the Corvallis regional have a closer who is among the 30 finalists for the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year. Darrell Fisherbaugh of Hawaii, lefty Kevin Gunderson of host school Oregon State and Joe Smith of Wright State join Czyz on the list. That figures to make it difficult for all four teams to stage ninth-inning comebacks.