Originally published May 26, 2014 at 11:19a.m., updated May 26, 2014 at 06:44p.m.
Jim Patterson Stadium
• Friday, May 30
1 p.m. Game 1: No. 3 Kansas (34-24) vs. No. 2 Kentucky (35-23)
5 p.m. Game 2: No. 4 Kent State (36-21) vs. No. 1 Louisville (45-15)
• Saturday, May 31
Game 3: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser
Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner
• Sunday, June 1
Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser
Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner
• Monday, June 2
Game 7: Game 6 winner vs. Game 6 loser (if necessary)
With his team in full-on mosh-pit mode in front of him, celebrating a feat most of them knew was coming anyway, Kansas University baseball coach Ritch Price stood back and basked in the joy.
Seconds earlier, in the KU locker room at Hoglund Ballpark, Price’s squad learned via ESPNU’s NCAA Tournament selection show that the Jayhawks were headed to the postseason for just the fifth time in school history, the third time in 12 seasons under Price.
“I think what makes this game so special is just to see the reaction of our players,” said Price, who also led Kansas to NCAA Tournament berths in 2006 and 2009. “The euphoria that was in the room gave me goose bumps. That’s the reason I coach.”
A year ago, in that same locker room, it was a much different scene. The hourlong selection show came and went without the name “Kansas” appearing on the screen, and rather than firing up his troops for a run at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., Price called for his guys to turn in their equipment, a painful sign that the offseason had arrived.
Not Monday. After rejoicing over the news and grabbing a quick bite to eat, the Jayhawks returned to Hoglund Ballpark for a 45-minute session with the media and the practice that followed.
Price kicked it all off with a spirited, “Let’s go to work, boys,” battle cry, and his players raced to their pre-practice stations ready to prep for the first NCAA Tournament appearance of their lives.
“Being able to play another day is the biggest thing,” said senior starting pitcher Jordan Piché, who will get the call against Kentucky at 1 p.m. Friday, when KU opens play in the four-team Louisville regional. “You don’t want to be done as a Jayhawk and done wearing Kansas across your chest.”
Kansas, which also advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 1993 and 1994, was added to the field of 64 as an at-large selection after finishing third in the Big 12 Conference, the best finish in school history. Kansas is seeded third at the four-team regional and will take on second-seeded Kentucky (35-23) in the opening round of the double-elimination tournament.
“It means a lot to finish my senior year making it into a regional,” senior starting pitcher Frank Duncan said. “After you register it and you take it in, then you look to see who you’re playing. And it’s funny that we’re playing Kentucky. We play ’em in basketball and now baseball. I think it’s a good rivalry.”
The basketball tie to this week’s baseball matchup was not lost on anyone on the Jayhawks’ roster.
“I think it’s pretty special,” senior catcher Ka’iana Eldredge said. “Coach Price says it well: ‘(KU’s) been a basketball school for 100 years, and for the next 100 years it’ll be a basketball school, too.’ But for Coach Price to come down here and take this program from where it has been to where it is now, I’m very proud to be a part of coach Price’s legacy and what he’s been able to do here.”
KU (34-24) closed conference play with nine consecutive victories, with series sweeps of Baylor, Texas Tech and West Virginia, and headed into last weekend’s Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City as the No. 3 seed. However, KU was bounced in two games and returned to Lawrence to rest and wait for Monday’s announcement. Though they all firmly believed they were in, several Jayhawks did not fully exhale until they saw it confirmed on the TV screen in the clubhouse.
“There’s definitely that nervousness,” Eldredge said. “You’re just like, ‘Call our name already,’ and as soon as we saw our name, everybody just exploded.”
Added Price: “One of the things that the Big 12 people and all the coaches tell you is, if you’re in before you go to the conference tournament, you can’t play your way out. And we were clearly in. Our RPI was 31. We finished third.”
Top-seeded Louisville (45-15) and fourth-seeded Kent State (36-21), which reached the College World Series two years ago, are the other teams KU will have to beat out for a berth in a Super Regional, but Price and his players believe they’re ready.
“The great thing about playing in the Big 12 Conference is it prepares you for the NCAA Tournament,” Price said. “The competition will be no better than what we’ve faced the last nine weeks in conference.”
Added Piché: “They’re all great teams, but you still have to go out there and compete, pitch for pitch. Nothing changes. We really want to be here, and I think we’re gonna play all-out.”