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The problems that have led to the K-State baseball team's slow start

The Manhattan Mercury, Kan. — Greg Woods The Manhattan Mercury, Kan.

April 03--Apr. 3--Will Brennan furrowed his brow, and standing near home plate, he gazed into the outfield at Tointon Family Stadium. It was nighttime, a few minutes removed from his Kansas State club's 7-0 loss to Nebraska -- the Wildcats' seventh loss in eight tries -- and the junior outfielder was thinking of the right way to phrase his answer.

The question: What has first-year head coach Pete Hughes done to change the culture around K-State baseball thus far?

"You feel like he's there. He's always there," Brennan said. "He's in your ear, even if you don't want him to be. He's going to be there, and he's going to care about you. If you're giving all you have on that field, he's going to care about you, and same with all the other coaches."

Hughes' vision was part of the reason he was hired last summer, and it's especially important now. Following its 17-2 loss to Missouri Wednesday night, K-State is now 12-18, with losses in eight of its last nine games. The Wildcats also are 1-5 in Big 12 play.

It's anything but the start Hughes hoped for. But it's not necessarily unexpected, either. He inherited a program with just one winning season in the last five years. K-State hasn't made the conference tournament in the last two years; only the last-place team in the Big 12 misses it.

He knew what he was getting into, though, and as much as he insists on turning around the program as quickly as possible, Hughes knows these things take time. When he inherited a similar situation at Virginia Tech in 2007, it took him three years to lead the Hokies to their first NCAA Tournament appearance.

There are differences, though. K-State has a core group of senior leaders: Brennan, and juniors Cameron Thompson and Kasey Ford, the three men leading the way toward what Hughes and Co. hope becomes a new version of K-State baseball.

"Those guys are workers," Hughes said. "They're the leaders. Guys look up to them. When they do the right things when you win, do the right things when you lose, the guys kind of follow suit."

Brennan has been the most consistent. He led the team in hitting in each of his first two seasons, with .350 and .359 batting averages, respectively, and he's up to .313 this season. He's a 2018 All-Big 12 First Team selection and a 2017 Freshman All-American, according to Collegiate Baseball.

Thompson's list of accolades isn't as extensive, but he also was named a Collegiate Baseball 2017 Freshman All-American, and with a .292 average this season, he's done plenty to help K-State earn its 12 wins thus far.

Ford's 2019 campaign hasn't gone to plan. He's 0-2 with a 13.05 ERA. He's letting opponents hit .407 on him, the worst on the team, and he's issued more walks (23) than strikeouts (21).

The results are mixed, in other words, the way they sometimes are with a team having a rough year.

That, though, hasn't stopped each from holding their teammates accountable.

"We're all pretty equally vocal," Brennan said. "I can be vocal if I need to be, but holding someone else accountable is a tough thing to do, especially in a difficult position if you're not having success as a team, but you have to be able to do it. That's what teams are for."

That's also where K-State's newcomers, well, come in. It's a young team overall -- "A lot of these guys are learning how to play the game," Hughes said -- but a few in particular have gotten off to promising starts in an otherwise dreary season for the Wildcats.

Sophomore Zach Kokoska, a transfer from Virginia Tech, leads the team with a .333 average. He has 11 multi-hit games under his belt, and while he's gone hitless in the Wildcats' last three contests, he's quickly turned into one of K-State's more reliable hitters.

"Zach Kokoska has been one of our most dependable guys," Hughes said.

Then there's junior Chris Ceballos, an Orange County College transfer who, with a .283 average and a team-best 21 RBI, already has developed into the team's everyday catcher and the usual five-hole hitter.

The list goes on.

Freshman Jordan Wicks, a lefty starter who Hughes said has given his team a chance to win "every time he's been out there." Freshman outfielder Dylan Phillips, who's hitting .245 and is tied for the team lead with four homers. Even freshman reliever Eric Torres, who has allowed just one run across his last 3 1/3 innings.

"You keep building on that," Hughes said. "Those guys will be back next year. The future looks good for those guys -- some good players to build a foundation on."

In any case, though, K-State is still stuck in last place in the Big 12, trudging through what could be its third straight losing season. The Wildcats are trying to stay positive, Brennan said. Or at least as positive as they can given the circumstances.

"I mean, when you fail 70, 80, 90 percent of the time, it's going to weigh down on you," Brennan said, "but you can't let that happen. That's why we have a close bunch, and we like to have fun, and then you pick yourself up. That's why it's also a great game, because you get to come out again and play the next day. It's a short season, but you have to be able to take a deep breath and forget about something that happened the night before."

Brennan has a goal in mind when he says all of this: make the Big 12 tournament. He hasn't done so yet. He laughs when he says it, acknowledging how little of an issue the other eight conference teams have had the past two years, smiling has he tries to turn a forgettable 2019 season into something more memorable.

Next up: a weekend series on the road against Creighton, beginning Friday.

"We're a team," Brennan said, "and we're all going to look out for one another and pick each other up, and that's how we're going to get out of it."

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(c)2019 The Manhattan Mercury (Manhattan, Kan.)

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