With the 2017 K-State baseball season over, a disappointing season following several disappointing seasons, it’s time for a look back at the history of Wildcat baseball, as well as the type of program that K-State is. We’ll break this up in to two parts, part one will focus on the history of baseball at K-State, while part two will dive into the aspects of the internal and external factors that make K-State baseball the way it is.
The 2012-13 season was a miracle in many way for Kansas State athletics. But most importantly, for the first time in the 150-year history of the university, the three major men’s sports were at the top of their respective conferences, and for two of them the firs time in Big 12 history.
For K-State football it was partially expected. The Cats had a stellar 2011 season, and were favorites coming in to 2012. It was the second conference title under Bill Snyder, and third overall. Basketball returned the core of a tournament team that just needed a few pieces, and under a new coach that was known for taking another coach’s players and improving their level. And while the Cats weren’t favorites, they still managed a split for the title, K-State’s first in basketball since the 1980’s.
But for baseball, it truly was a miracle. Prior to Brad Hill’s arrival in Manhattan, K-State baseball was floundering. Similar to the story of football prior to Bill Snyder’s arrival, baseball hadn’t won a conference championship since 1933, had never made a non-conference post-season berth, and finished higher than 4th only four times in the history of the Big 8 conference.
The best stretch of K-State baseball came under the 5-year helm of Phil Wilson, 1973-1977, when the Cats finished second twice, fourth twice, and fifth once. Wilson’s K-State career record of .568 is still the best in K-State history, and his 35-18 1978 squad is still 4th all-time in single-season wins, and was the leader until 2009.
A decade and three coaches later, Mike Clark took the helm of K-State baseball. During his 17 years leading the Cats, he experienced some big highs and major lows; and until the 2017 season held the record for most wins as coach at K-State. At the time of his retirement, Clark had six of the programs nine 30-win seasons under his belt, and had overseen the complete $3.1 million remake of Frank Meyers field into Tointon Family Stadium. But he had also coached three of the Wildcats five worst seasons since the mid-1960’s, posting two season of 15 wins, including his last, and a season where the Cats struggled to 13 wins. But Clark is still fondly remembered in Manhattan, and now leads the Development office for K-State Athletics.
Which leads us to Brad Hill and the recent history of K-State baseball.
The Brad Hill Era
Hill came to K-State in the fall of 2003 fresh off winning the D-II College World Series at Central Missouri, earning NCAA D-II Coach of the Year honors in the process. His Mules never failed to win their conference, and finished below 40 wins just twice, and still had 39 wins both of those times. He was about an all-star pick as you could hope for at K-State in 2004, especially after Mike Clark’s 15-37 final season leading the Wildcats and highly limited budget for baseball.
In 2004 Hill righted the ship and nearly doubled the previous season’s total going 26-30 in year one. By year two he had the Cats over .500 at 30-25 and started a streak of seven seasons where the Cats finished .500 or better on the season. 2006 was Hill’s first off the conference floor, and 2007 marked just the second appearance at the Big 12 Baseball Tournament in conference history. 2008 saw continued improvement, but the real break through came in 2009.
Behind the starting pitching of A.J. Morris, who won consensus First Team All-American, first ever for K-State, and Big 12 Pitcher of the Year honors, the Wildcats rolled off a then-school record 43 wins and finished the season ranked #22 in the country, their first appearance in the final polls in school history. If that wasn’t enough, they also reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history, and made it to the Houston regional final before losing to the host Rice Owls. And K-State only finished 4th in the Big 12 that season. Brad Hill was named Big 12 Coach of the Year for his efforts leading the Cats to their then-best season in school history.
2010 saw more success for the BatCats. Behind sophomore Nick Martini, who was named the Big 12 Player of the Year and earned Second Team All-American honors, the Cats rattled off a 36-20 campaign, marking the then-second highest win total in K-State history, the Cats finished 3rd in the conference and again were headed to an NCAA regional site, this time to Fayetteville where the Cats fell twice to #23 Washington State. In 2011 the Cats fell back slightly, after the departure of hitting coach Andy Sawyers in the off-season the Cats only managed a 6th-place Big 12 finish while still matching the previous season’s win total going 36-25. But it was good enough for the Cats to make their third straight NCAA tournament, though losses in their first two games sent them home quickly from the Fullerton regional.
Up to this point, the Cats had shown consistent growth, player longevity (i.e. players not leaving early to go pro), some luck with injuries, and some stellar assistants. But then 2012 happened. The Cats lost long-time assistant pitching coach Sean McCann to retirement (he had stepped back in his duties in 2011, but was still on staff), and five key juniors left for the MLB draft at the end of the 2011, including Evan Marshall. The Cats struggled through their worst season in seven years, but still managed to win enough games late to make the Big 12 Tournament, and created some momentum for 2013 by making a run to the championship game of the tournament.
2013. The miracle year. Following in the footsteps of the football and basketball teams, the BatCats were led by a few key seniors, a batch of strong juniors, and several outstanding freshmen on their way to a Big 12 regular season title.
The 2013 squad was able to put together its best season in school history, winning a school-record 45 games, including 16 in Big 12 play, as they secured K-State baseball’s first conference championship since 1933. The Wildcats also earned the first NCAA Regional host selection in school history, and won the Regional in dominating fashion sweeping games against in-state rival Wichita State, Bryant, and Arkansas to capture the program's first NCAA Super Regional berth. The BatCats also set a school record by placing seven players on the All-Big 12 First Team, including Big 12 Player of the Year Ross Kivett, Freshman of the Year Jake Matthys and Co-Scholar Athlete of the Year Jared King. Hill also garnered honors, earning his second Big 12 Coach of the Year nod.
The Wildcats had set a new all-time high-water mark, and expectations went through the roof.
2014 and Beyond
The 2014 was highly anticipated. Ross Kivett, a 10th round draft pick in the 2013 MLB draft, and Shane Conlon, a 21st round pick, both elected to return to Manhattan. The group of stellar freshmen were now sophomores, and several key seniors littered to roster. Even the coaching staff returned from the 2013 season, as Mike Clement was in year two coaching hitters/offense and Josh Reynolds was entering his fourth year coaching pitchers. K-State was poised for another top-half Big 12 finish. And then disaster struck. The Cats opened the season 1-7, but won 12-straight in March before succumbing to injuries, inconsistency, and a tough conference season to finish the season 25-30, 5-19 in conference, to finish in last place and with Hill’s worst record during his time in Manhattan. For the first time in eight years, the Wildcats missed the Big 12 tournament.
From extreme high, to extreme low.
Following the season, things blew up in a big way. Multiple freshmen and sophomores transferred from the program, with rumors that many couldn’t handle the adversity and wanted out for greener pastures, effectively gutting big parts of two recruiting classes. It was mass, and it was brutal, robbing Hill and the Wildcats of depth and experience in the system. Also Mike Clement left for the associate HC position at Mississippi, though that did bring the return of Sawyers to Manhattan.
Still, enough pieces remained for a potential turnaround. And the Cats got things started back the right direction. The 2015 season was far from spectacular, but the Cats went 27-30, but 10-14 in the Big 12 and finished in 6th place in the conference. The Cats were led by Second Team All-Big 12 rs-sophomore pitcher Nate Griep and First Team All-Big 12 senior first baseman Shane Conlon. But the Cats suffered another tough off-season. First, in a good-for-him-but-bad-for-the-program draft, Greip was selected in the 8th round, making him the highest draft pick since 2011. Conlon, and fellow senior Max Brown, joined him, going in the 34th and 37th, respectively. The biggest hit came from the recruiting class, as six signees were drafted, three signing. Then pitching coach Reynolds left for the associate HC position at Northwestern, and Hill hired back Sean McCann, who had to retire shortly before the season started due to health issues forcing a last-minute replacement. Luckily, the Cats were able to hire Tyler Kincaid, but his late arrival meant he missed a good chunk of development and recruiting time in Manhattan.
The Cats held water in 2016, but barely. Limping again to a 26-31 finish, 8-16 in conference, the Cats were able to return to the Big 12 tournament before losing their two games in the tourney for a quick exit. Lots went right for the Cats, but another young roster and lack of depth still being felt from the 2014 exodus created another long season for K-State baseball. The Cats had two players drafted in the 2016 draft, but both were seniors; and did have one signee drafted in the 6th round. To note: Tyler Wolfe, drafted in the 39th round as the last of the Cats drafted, was the 58th MLB Draft selection under Brad Hill and 32nd to not be drafted out of high school. Again, another coaching change came in the off-season, as Andy Sawyers left to take the HC position at Southeastern Missouri/. He was replaced by Mitch Gaspard, long-time head coach at Alabama.
The 2017 season, well it was better in many ways. While the Cats struggled through a loaded Big 12 slate, they did notch impressive wins over South Carolina and Ohio State early in the season, and were just a run from beating Arkansas and sweeping Wichita State. The Cats finished the season 29-29, 8-16 in the Big 12, and just a half-game from the last spot in the Big 12 tournament. The 2017 season also marked the first since 2014 that the Cats had a full and even roster, though the Cats still faced inconsistency and injuries. A solid group of seniors depart, and the MLB draft has not yet occurred, but the Cats have a solid core of younger players that could bring about the return of K-State baseball to the 2008 level and beyond.