Today marks exactly one month to the day before the Kansas State Wildcats take to the diamond in San Luis Obispo, Calif. to take on Cal Poly in what will start an eight game road trip. The Wildcats not only are looking to defend their Big 12 title, but also make a run at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. after falling just short last season against Oregon State.
The excitement to the start of the season has already been built as the Wildcats were rated No. 28 in Collegiate Baseball's "Fabulous 40" preseason baseball poll. K-State was one of five conference teams ranked as Oklahoma State (No. 18), TCU (No. 19), Texas (No. 20), and Oklahoma (No. 32) all cracked the poll. Cal State Fullerton checked in as the nation's top team.
When the Wildcats take to the field next month they'll be looking to second basemen Ross Kivett and relief pitcher Jake Matthys to continue to step up their game. Both were named Louisville Slugger Preseason All-Americans with Kivett garnering First Team honors. Kivett, a senior from Broadview Heights, Ohio was a .360 hitter last season, led the team in runs scored (57) and hits (94).
Matthys,a sophomore from Spring Lake Park, Minn., had nine wins and nine saves with a 2.05 ERA in 34 appearances last season to lead the Wildcats in each category. His final appearance of last season is surely one that stings as he picked up just his second loss of the season to Oregon State which ended the Wildcats season. In four and a third innings, Matthys gave up two earned runs while errors added two more in his five-strikeout performance against the Beavers.
Also returning to the mound this season is Matt Wivinis, a junior from Downers Grove, Ill., who was 6-2 last season with a 4.72 ERA. Wivinis has the most returning experience on the mound from last season as he threw in 76 and a one-third innings while Nate Williams, a junior from Valley Center, Kan., had 67 and one-third innings on the hill with a team leading 54 strikeouts.
The key to this year's staff will be to try to repeat what they did last season in the later innings. In 2013, K-State was 33-3 when they had the lead after six innings and a perfect 38-0 when they led after eight innings. Much of the pitching staff's success came from the Wildcats getting their bats going early as they were 20-2 when scoring runs in the first inning.
The Wildcats infield remains intact with all four regular starters returning. Austin Fisher, a junior from Lenexa, Kan., who led K-State last season with a .361 batting average and 20 doubles last season is back at shortstop along with first basemen Shane Conlon, a junior from Naperville, Ill., who batted .341 last season with 85 hits. At third, RJ Santigate, a senior from Las Vegas, rounds out the infield with a .324 average from last season.
One of the larger question marks this spring will be the outfield of the Wildcats as three of the mainstays from last season are gone. Tanner Witt, Jared King and Jon Davis started a combined 185 games last season. Clayton Dalrymple and Mitch Meyer return with the most starting experience in the outfield with Meyer adding 19 starts as the team's designated hitter.
Coach Brad Hill enters his 11th season as head coach of the Wildcats with a 756-334-3 overall record, which includes his time at Central Missouri State. After taking the program to their first ever Super Regional last season, Hill will have his program focused on the ultimate prize in Omaha. With nineteen returning players from last season this spring could be another step forward for the once average Wildcat program.
In the year prior to taking over the program the Wildcats were just 15-37 overall, winning only five Big 12 conference games. Since taking over, Hill's teams have had 26 or more wins in every season and are coming off a school record 45-19 season including their first ever Big 12 title. K-State's 16-8 record in conference play is also an all-time record.
In the offseason, K-State added seven true freshmen and seven transfers to the roster including Manhattan, Kan. native Brooks DeBord who joins his first team All-Big 12 standout brother Blair Debord on the roster as a catcher.
Keep an eye out for transfers Max Brown, Nate Hale and Cater Yagi who all put up good numbers last season at their JUCOs. With holes left due to graduation in the outfield the Wildcats will need to have someone emerge this season as a leader.
The Wildcats open their 2014 home schedule on February 28 in a three game home stand against UW-Milwaukee at Tointon Family Stadium.