Some might call the Kansas University baseball team’s unexpected 2009 success a pleasant surprise.
Jayhawks coach Ritch Price calls it the greatest case of overachievement he’s seen in his seven seasons at the school.
“I’m most proud of how our team grinded throughout the whole season,” Price said Tuesday. “To be so young and to watch that team grow and mature and then peak. ... I honestly believe we played at a higher level and beat some big-time opponents when the teams in the other dugout had more talent.”
Entering the spring, Kansas did not appear to be brimming with postseason potential. Smarting from the loss of three of their best players from ’07 — John Allman, Ryne Price and Erik Morrison — the Jayhawks figured to suffer from a significant lack of power and an otherwise inexperienced group of starters.
But with the help of a surprisingly solid pitching staff — and a few new faces, including Big 12 newcomer of the year David Narodowski and freshman pitcher Lee Ridenhour — KU turned a supposed rebuilding year into one of the program’s most successful seasons in the past decade.
Among their more memorable feats, the Jayhawks swept then-No. 1 Texas and then-No. 17 Oklahoma State, while going a combined 4-2 against in-state rivals Wichita State and Kansas State. They recorded their highest finish ever — fifth — in the Big 12, and went an unprecedented 25-3 at home.
Even after struggling to an 0-3 performance in last month’s Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City, meanwhile, the Jayhawks bounced back to reach the championship game of the Chapel Hill, N.C. regional, beating No. 15 Coastal Carolina and Dartmouth before falling to top-seeded North Carolina on Sunday.
“I thought that once we went to the regional, we showed the kind of character that we have to have to be in that position in the future,” Price said. “Not just to get there, but to get there and win.”
A regional title, surely, will be among the team’s preseason goals heading into 2010.
With the exception of four graduating seniors — and the possible departure of up to three potential draftees in left-handed pitcher Shaeffer Hall, shortstop David Narodowski and right fielder Brian Heere — Kansas returns essentially the same team next season, a nucleus led by first-team all-Big 12 third baseman Tony Thompson, who finished the season as the conference’s leader in batting average (.389), home runs (21) and RBIs (82).
The Jayhawks will also return heralded left-handed pitcher Wally Marciel, who was a member of the team’s rotation as a freshman and sophomore before missing the entire ’09 season due to injury.
All of this has Price, barely two days removed from the conclusion of the team’s 2009 season, grinning about the promise of next year.
“I can’t wait,” said the coach. “I’m thrilled to get Wally back and I look at the four guys that we have coming in that are big-time prospects, and I really believe that we’ll be a legitimate top 20 team next year.”