By ALAN HOSKINS
KANSAS CITY, KAN. ----- At 2-10 in the Jayhawk Conference and 5-15 overall, Steve Burleson set goals for his promising but underachieving Kansas City Kansas Community College baseball team.
“Fifth place and get back to .500” – an optimistic but perhaps unrealistic goal considering the Blue Devils were about to face back-to-back four-game series with a pair of Jayhawk Conference co-leaders, Cowley County and Coffeyville.
What followed was the most amazing turnaround in Jayhawk Conference baseball history. Cowley, the perennial conference power which had never been swept in four games, was beaten in four straight and then Coffeyville was taken down in four games in a row and suddenly the Blue Devils had won 14 in a row and soared four games over .500.
“Going into a weekend against an always difficult opponent at Cowley and winning gave us the idea that when we bear down we could get results and then to sweep Coffeyville the next weekend erased the idea that beating Cowley may have been a fluke,” said Burleson. “It was a 10-day indicator that we could do better.”
Over the course of the last six weeks of the regular season, no team played better baseball, finishing the Jayhawk season 21-3 and the regular season 27-4. Taking two of three from Colby in the first round of the playoffs, the Blue Devils won three in a row in the super-regional before losing their final two to No. 5 ranked Johnson County. Although fifth in the final standings, the Blue Devils were second in the tournament that counted most and 17 games over .500 at 39-22.
“I’ve always admired a person or a team that recognized their shortcomings and took steps to do something about it,” said Burleson. “When we were 5-15, this group self-analyzed and sincerely worked on the things where we needed to get better. It was hard work but they were willing to take the steps to do something about it.
“As a group, we played poorly at the start of the year and suffered. Usually you have a collection of guys until they suffer and then they become a team when they come together. And it identified that if we were going to have success, it would have to come from our energy and our effort and when we had great energy and effort, we tended to play well and when we didn’t, it taught us something too.”
Hitting .300 as a team, the Blue Devils had five starters hit better than .300 led by centerfielder Lucas Norton, who hit .366, drove in 29 runs and stole a team high 29 bases. The others were freshman third baseman Daniel LaMunyon, who hit .340 and drove in 43; shortstop Zane Mapes, .316 with 19 RBI; catcher Garrett McKinzie, .315 with eight home runs and 48 RBI; and outfielder Christian Arnold, .305 with the team lead in home runs (10) and RBI (52). All earned All-Jayhawk recognition along with three pitchers, Geoffrey Birkemeier, Hunter Phillips and C.J. Merlo..
Second baseman Tyler Raymond just missed the .300 mark, hitting .298. He and LaMunyon will return next season along with three other regulars, outfielder Alex Thrower (.263), designated hitter Tanner Thibodeau (.23) and first baseman Tanner Foerschler (.219).
Starting pitchers Hunter (9-7) and Birkemeier (8-4) are both freshmen along with relievers Derek Watkins(4-0 with four saves), Preston Bailey (3-4), Jonathan May (3-1) and Spencer Nielsen (1-1). Losses include Merlo (6-3) and Cole Frakes (4-0).
“Time to get to work; its recruiting time,” said Burleson.