Originally published May 25, 2009 at 11:39a.m., updated May 25, 2009 at 11:58a.m.
It was a rather gray Monday morning when Paul Smyth and Buck Afenir arrived at the McCarthy Family Clubhouse, where the two seniors, along with teammates, would flip on a television to find out whether their decorated careers as members of the Kansas University baseball team had come to an end.
And in the uncertainty of the day — their futures placed, for the moment, in the unforgiving hands of the NCAA’s selection committee — the two seniors were not in the most tranquil of moods.
“We were saying we didn’t know if we could stomach it if we didn’t get announced before the commercial break,” Smyth said.
Luckily for the players, their stomachs suffered limited abuse.
Shortly after the start of ESPN’s 30-minute selection special — and just before the program’s first commercial break — Kansas was tapped as the No. 3 seed in the Chapel Hill, N.C., regional, where the Jayhawks will take on second-seeded Coastal Carolina at 1 p.m. Friday.
The announcement was a relief for the Jayhawks, who’ll be making their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance and their first since 2006, when the team finished 1-2 in Corvallis, Ore.
“I’m just thrilled for our players,” seventh-year KU coach Ritch Price said. “You start playing this thing four or five months ago, and it’s an incredible grind through 56 games with the demands these student-athletes have on them. Obviously, I’m very proud of them, and I think they’re very deserving of the opportunity to compete in the NCAA Tournament.”
The invitation, however, didn’t come without a good dose of drama.
A week ago, having closed out a 37-19 regular season with a convincing series victory over then-No. 11 Kansas State, the Jayhawks appeared to be a lock for an NCAA regional berth, having survived a grueling schedule to earn a fifth-place conference finish.
But after a surprisingly sluggish showing at last weekend’s Big 12 tournament, during which it lost three games by a combined score of 22-11, the team’s postseason footing suddenly grew shaky. And as the Jayhawks suffered through the first few minutes of Monday’s selection show, watching bracket after bracket appear without them, doubt began to seep into the locker room.
One of the most nerve-wracking moments came in the first few minutes of the program, when Oklahoma State, which had failed to earn a berth into the Big 12 tournament and — like Kansas — was considered a bubble team, was selected into the Clemson, S.C., regional.
“The room just fell silent,” Smyth said. “You come to that realization that every year teams get disappointed. We were keeping our fingers crossed that it wasn’t going to be us, (but) when we saw Okie State, who was a bubble team, get in, it was, ‘OK, that’s one of the spots that’s taken.’”
Instead, the OSU selection merely represented the start of a rather big day for the Big 12 Conference.
A record eight Big 12 teams earned bids Monday, a group that included No. 1 seeds Texas and Oklahoma, No. 2 seeds Missouri, Kansas State and Texas A&M; and No. 3 seeds Kansas, Oklahoma State and Baylor.
Kansas now can focus on its upcoming opponent: a 46-14 Coastal Carolina team coming off its third straight Big South Conference tournament title.
Monday afternoon, Price said he knew little about the Chanticleers — a program KU never before has faced — but he expected that to change by the end of the workday.
“First, we’ll try to contact somebody that we have a relationship with that’s played them in a nonconference game,” Price said. “Second thing is, we’ll get online and find out which games they had that were on TV and see if we can get copies of the video, and then we’ll break that video down.”
What they’ll find is a team that, on paper, does not possess many discernible weaknesses. In addition to their postseason experience, having advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 in 2008, the Chanticleers feature 10 players batting .300 or higher and a three-member corps of starting pitchers who combined to go 26-3 this season.
But with Monday’s announcement came a renewed sense of spirit within the confines of the Kansas clubhouse, and for a team desperate to rebound from its most recent skid, a clean slate and a chance at redemption.
“After this last weekend, it didn’t leave a real good taste in our mouth,” all-Big 12 third baseman Tony Thompson said. “But we’ll be going in this weekend fresh, and we’re excited to be there and have the opportunity to move on.
“Anything can happen,” he added, “once you make it into this tournament.”