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Archive for Monday, May 18, 2009

Welcome to the big time

May 18, 2009

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The late, great college baseball coach Rod Dedeaux of Southern Cal met so many people, shook so many hands and so enjoyed interacting with people that it would have been nearly impossible for him to remember all the names. So he called everyone “Tiger.”

Kansas University baseball coach Ritch Price meets so many people, shakes so many hands and so enjoys interacting with people that it would be nearly impossible for him to remember all the names.

Price calls everyone “Big Time.” It’s time to call Price’s baseball program the same.

Price’s Jayhawks needed to win the season-ending, three-game series against Kansas State to remove any doubt as to their worthiness for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. After dropping the opener in Manhattan, KU returned home and bullied the nation’s 11th-ranked team two nights in a row to the delight of capacity crowds.

KU enters the Big 12 tournament with its highest-seed ever, No. 5, and boasts a 37-19 overall record and 15-12 in conference games.

Sunday night’s 17-7 mercy-shortened victory made it a two-night combined score of Kansas 26, Kansas State 10. That’s a big-time beating followed by a big-time bludgeoning, which no doubt will result in conversations that go something like: “Coach Price, way to pound K-State.” “Thanks, Big Time.”

The steady improvement of so many individuals in the program is the obvious answer to why this team has exceeded expectations. But it’s more than that. The construction of a big-time clubhouse has had a big-time impact on the way the Kansas players feel about their abilities.

KU went a remarkable 25-3 at home.

Among the biggest players in making that happen were donors Kent and Missy McCarthy and Gary and Sue Padgett, according to Price. The coach recently e-mailed them to thank them for stepping to the plate for a baseball program that has been hidden in the enormous shadow of the school’s perennial basketball powerhouse. (How big-time is Kansas baseball now? The coach of the nation’s preseason 2009-2010 No. 1 basketball program, Bill Self, took in the game from a seat behind home plate along with pal Barry Hinson, who was wearing a red sweater even though he graduated from Oklahoma State.)

“I honestly believe that it puts swagger in our program,” Price said of the clubhouse. “The players love being in there so much that now it’s a true home-field advantage, even when it’s cold out. They’re in the academic room constantly. They live in the player lounge. I honestly believe that the reason we have that home record, 25-3, is because of the new clubhouse. And obviously it’s made a difference in recruiting.”

Senior catcher Buck Afenir, who went 2-for-3, homered and knocked in three runs in his final game at The Hog, discussed how the upgraded facilities changed the program.

“I felt really honored to be in there, and I felt like I wanted to earn it this year,” Afenir said. “Skip worked really hard every day for as long as he’s been here to get that thing going and to get those facilities up. I think a lot of guys felt like we needed to earn it, especially us older guys.”

The record shows they were more than worthy of the new digs.

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