Ritch Price stood outside the home dugout at Hoglund Ballpark late Tuesday afternoon, an hour before Kansas University’s baseball team departed for Louisville, Kentucky — site of Friday’s NCAA Tournament opener against the University of Kentucky.
The Jayhawks’ 12th-year coach — whose own fundraising efforts have helped make possible stadium improvements and a long list of other construction projects — was not thinking about himself, but others as his squad prepared to begin its 2014 postseason journey.
“My relationship with Floyd Temple was so special,” Price said, recalling the late KU coach who compiled a 438-397 record from 1954 to ‘81. “I’d take him to lunch. He’d tell me every time, ‘Break every record I’ve got. Break every record I’ve got.’ There’s not many men like that in the country. I think about him every time we accomplish some milestone,” noted Price, whose KU teams have compiled a 391-333 mark and also advanced to NCAA play in 2006 and ‘09.
“For 28 years he (Temple) coached here with no resources. I’ve been fortunate enough to help raise the money and improve the facilities thanks to the generosity of our donors. Literally that’s led to the success we’ve had in recruiting better players.”
He’s grown close with some of the former players of Temple, Marty Pattin, Dave Bingham and Bobby Randall the past decade and change.
“That is one of the greatest things about being here. The pride the ex-players have of being a Jayhawk is something I can’t even describe,” Price said. “It’s really special to be the head coach and see so many former alums come back on Alumni Day. It gives you goose bumps.”
The relationships with current and past players make the former Cal Poly coach (1994-2002) say, “I’ve got the greatest job in America. I’m so honored to be the baseball coach here. I’m proud of the facility improvements and the success we’ve had. I’m looking forward to continuing to build on that success, to see if we can make a run.”
He’s confident his current players, who take a 34-24 record (15-9 in Big 12) into Friday’s 1 p.m. CDT game against Kentucky (35-23), can get the job done in the double-elimination weekend regional.
“I’ve had better teams than this, there’s no doubt,” Price said. “This is a team, literally if you put all of its parts together, the whole is better than the individual parts. That’s why it’s a true team. We don’t have one star player like in the past with a Tony Thompson, who won a Triple Crown, and some of our guys have been first-team all-Big 12 in the past. This is a team, you put nine guys on the field, they are better as a group than individually.”
He quickly rattled off some names when asked to identify some “unsung heroes” that also included assistant coaches Ryan Graves and Ritchie Price, who Price said he expects to land major-college head coaching jobs in the near future.
“Tucker Tharp (.305, 6 HRs, 36 RBI) has had a career year as a senior. He’s been a major force in the middle of our lineup. He hasn’t made an error the entire season in center field,” Price said.
“Colby Wright (.320, 1, 20) started out as backup at second base. He ends up being second-team all-conference. He’s not only become a good college player but made himself a professional player. Ka’iana Eldredge (.285, 0, 22) for having played second base his first two years, switching back to catcher ... I think he’s been a great leader behind the dish.
“You expect Michael Suiter (.327, 3, 40) to have a great year. Justin Protacio (.283, 0, 14) has done what he’s done the previous year, get on base and score runs and play good defense.
“Obviously Drew Morovick (9-4 record) has been successful with nine wins as a midweek starter and being used multiple days on the weekend. I can’t say enough about the freshman, Stephen Villines (eight saves, 1.64 ERA). He’s made the whole switch after losing (Wes) Benjamin (to injury). His emergence has been important.”
Of his upperclassmen-dominated team that barely missed qualifying for the NCAAs last year and almost made it three years ago before a late-season slide, Price said: “I think they are excited to play. For the seniors, they haven’t been in a regional before. I think obviously there’s great energy and enthusiasm about what the future holds.”