2006 Cats Look To Take The Next Step
In just two seasons under head coach Brad Hill, Kansas State has taken giant leaps as a program as it looks to get back into the thick of things in the always-tough Big 12 Conference, a league that annually sends multiple teams to the NCAA College World Series.
The 2004 season, Hill’s first at Kansas State, saw the Wildcats earn their first-ever national ranking after jumping out of the gate with a 19-6 record and saw them take a 3-2 road win at No. 9 Texas A&M late in the season. Then, in 2005, the Wildcats won 30 games for just the third time in the last 14 years, knocked off No. 1 Texas, the 2005 national champion, for the school’s first-ever win over a top-ranked team, swept the season series from in-state rival Wichita State for the first time in 50 years, doubled their conference win total from the previous year, broke into the Top 10 in seven team single-season offensive categories and set a new team ERA record during the aluminum bat era of college baseball.
So, to say Hill and company are on track to taking the Wildcat program to new heights is an understatement. Now, with eight pitchers returning, including the team’s entire weekend rotation and its closer, four of last season’s top six hitters coming back, and a talented group of freshmen making nearly every position more competitive, Hill knows the Cats have what it takes to take the next step as a program in the Big 12 Conference.
The Pitching Staff
Kansas State’s biggest strength heading into the 2006 season will be the return of all three weekend starters on the mound and the overall depth of the pitching staff. Starters Adam Cowart (7-4, 3.93) and Chase Mitchell (7-6, 4.45) return for their senior seasons after each posting seven wins a year ago, marking the first time two Wildcat pitchers had recorded seven wins in a season since 1985. Sophomore Brad Hutt rounds out the weekend rotation after he compiled a 2-1 record with a 3.16 ERA during the later stages of the 2005 season as a true freshman. The Wildcats also return middle relievers B.J. Kissel, Daniel Edwards and Chase Bayuk and closer Bryan Peterson. Edwards and Bayuk, both sophomores, each had impressive falls, while Peterson returns for his senior campaign after picking up five saves in 2005 and having a big summer. Kissel, Edwards and Bayuk combined for 60.2 innings in 52 appearances a year ago. Senior Brett Muegge also returns after going 4-2 last season and is a candidate for a midweek starting spot or relief duties. The bulk of K-State’s impressive freshman class is made up of pitchers and several will have the makeup and talent to compete in their first season in Manhattan. Right-hander Justin Murray, a local product from Manhattan High, had an impressive fall and was the 2005 Kansas Pitcher of the Year as a high school senior. Lefthander Ben Hornbeck also made strides this fall and will have a chance to make an immediate impact. Hornbeck, a product of Sunnyslope High School in Phoenix, Ariz., was a 48th-round selection of the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2005 MLB Amateur Draft and was an all-state performer as a senior. Other newcomers that could challenge for time on the mound include right-hander Todd Vogel from Ankeny, Iowa, Trevor Hurley from Tomball, Texas, A.J. Morris from Humble, Texas, and Corey Morehouse from Houston, Texas.
The Wildcats will return numerous players on the infield this season that saw playing time in 2005, but several of them may be in new positions. Last season, Jared Goedert saw time at first base and second base, but the junior looks to have found a spot at third after fall practice. Goedert, one of the top hitters in the Big 12 Conference, returns after hitting .341 last season with four homers and 39 RBI and is coming off a monstrous summer where he was named a First Team Summer All-American by Baseball America after his play for the Hays Larks in the Jayhawk League. Freshman Drew Biery, from Arlington, Texas, and sophomore Matt Marasco will back Goedert up at third. On the other corner, sophomore Cris Tapia looks to be a lock at first base after he hit .326 as a true freshman and really came on strong for the Cats late in the 2005 season. Tapia, along with Goedert, should anchor down the middle of the Wildcats’ offensive lineup. Marasco and Dustin Rasco will provide depth at first. Taking over at shortstop will be junior Eli Rumler, after he had a nice fall at the plate and in the field. Rumler, a tremendous defender with one of the strongest arms in the conference, really impressed at the plate this fall with a .404 average to lead the squad. Backing up and challenging Rumler will be freshman Nate Tenbrink from Kansas City. Over at second base, sophomore Brett Scott and freshman Tyler Link will battle for the starting nod. Scott has proven to be solid defensively, after not committing an error during fall scrimmages, while Link impressed with his bat and his power at the plate during the fall. Junior Eddie Vasquez transferred in at semester and will also be in the mix at both the shortstop and second base spots.
Behind the Plate
Senior Brandon Farr returns after appearing in 40 games a year ago and will head into the spring as the No. 1 catcher. Farr hit .331 with 37 RBI was also a perfect 10-for-10 in stolen bases. He will be backed up by sophomore Derek Bunker, who is back from a shoulder injury that kept him out in 2005 and freshman Rob Vaughn, a Louisville Slugger High School All-American from Humble, Texas. Adding depth to the catcher position is freshman Daniel Dellasega from Pittsburg.
With the loss of all three outfielders from the 2005 squad, including two guys that are now playing in the professional ranks, the Wildcats will have a revamped outfield in 2006. Senior Barrett Rice, who played third base a year ago, has moved to the outfield and seems to have locked down the spot in left. Rice led the team a year ago with a .348 average with six homers and 27 RBI and probably possesses the strongest arm of the current outfielders. Joe Roundy, a senior who hit 10 homers a year ago, saw time at both designated hitter and in right field, will anchor down the spot in right and could also play center if needed. Freshmen Byron Wiley, an all-state selection from Tomball, Texas, Robbie Knight, the Gatorade Nebraska Player of the Year in 2005, and Jordan Cruz, a multi-sport athlete from Hutchinson, will also battle for playing time as true freshmen. Wiley, a powerful left-handed hitter, could play center or right, while Knight has the best speed on the team and could also play center. Cruz had a nice fall offensively and could see time in either right field or at the DH spot, while Tyler Link, Adam Muenster and Andrew Giambrone all provide solid depth.
Kansas State’s 2006 schedule includes 20 games against teams that advanced to 2005 NCAA Regional play and nine games against teams that advanced to last season’s College World Series. The Wildcats open the 2006 slate February 17 in Arlington, Texas, against the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles, a 2005 regional team.
The Wildcats, after opening with three games at the UTA Invitational in Texas, then head down to Lafayette, La., for the ULL Tournament. K-State returns home for a 15-game home stand with the season home-opener scheduled for February 28 against South Dakota State. The Wildcats host Eastern Illinois, Xavier, Wichita State, North Dakota State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee during the stretch and, after a weekend trip to Missouri, host three more teams to give them 23 of 26 straight games at home.
The Big 12 schedule begins March 24-26 at Missouri as the Wildcats open up conference play in Columbia for the second time in three seasons. After hosting Chicago State for two midweek games, the Wildcats host 2005 College World Series participant Nebraska (March 31-April 2) and defending national champion Texas (April 7-9) on consecutive weekends.
Other Big 12 home series include Kansas (April 22-23), Oklahoma State (April 28-30) and 2005 College World Series participant Baylor (May 19-21), while road series include Texas Tech (April 13-15), Oklahoma (May 5-7) and Texas A&M (May 12-14).
In all, the Wildcats will play 31 home games and face nine teams that advanced to the postseason last year.