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'I was just playing ball, man'

How KU shortstop Collier Cranford became the latest Jayhawk to hit for the cycle

6 min read
KU shortstop Collier Cranford (7) smiles with teammates after the Jayhawks' 13-3 win over UCF in March during which Cranford hit for the cycle. [Kansas Athletics photo]

When Kansas shortstop Collier Cranford was younger, his dad, Keith, encouraged him to start making a list of schools at which he would like to play college baseball.

Growing up in the heart of the bayou, in a town called Zachary, Louisiana, just 16 miles north of Baton Rouge, LSU naturally made the list.

Surprisingly, though, one of the first schools that Cranford wrote down was Kansas.

“You know, I’m young; I’m just looking up all the big schools, Power 5 schools, and writing names down right and left,” Cranford recently told R1S1 Sports. “One of the first ones on the list, just in the order I was going, was Kansas, and my dad was like, ‘Man, you want to go to Kansas? What’s in Kansas?’”

Today, Cranford is. In a big way. And he’ll be a part of KU’s record books for the rest of time after becoming the latest Jayhawk — and the first since 2013 — to hit for the cycle during a mid-March win over UCF at Hoglund Ballpark.

Cranford’s cycle was what they call a “natural cycle,” with the KU shortstop picking up a single, double, triple and home run in that order during the Jayhawks’ 13-3 victory.

According to the "top hitting performances" section in KU's media guide, the Jayhawks had just three players hit for cycles before Cranford in the history of the program – Jeff Niemeier in 1993, Jared Schweitzer in 2006 and Connor McKay in 2013.

Cranford was 4-for-5 on the night, with 7 RBIs, and there were more memorable moments during the historic hitting display than just his grand slam in the seventh inning that made it official.

In the sixth, after launching a ball off the wall in right field, he slid head-first into third base content with a triple when the initial sign from KU’s third base coach was waving him home.

Call it a good fortune or serendipity. Either way, it took a while after that 7th-inning home run to right field for Cranford to actually take in what had just happened.

“When I stepped on home plate and just looked at everyone, I just thought, ‘Holy cow, I think I just hit for the cycle,’” he recalled during a recent sit-down interview with R1S1 Sports. “I was just out of it. It almost didn’t even feel real.”

Said KU coach Dan Fitzgerald after the win: "Happy for Collier. He’s a heck of a player and a heck of a teammate. It’s fun when those guys have those awesome accomplishments."

Cranford, who hit sixth in the Jayhawks’ lineup that night, said he thought about the possibility of recording the cycle after he reached on an infield single in the first inning and ripped a double to left field in the third. But the thought disappeared as quickly as it came.

“That’s something you don’t even think about,” he said. “When it happens, it happens.”

KU's Collier Cranford runs the bases after his home run that completed the cycle during a March win over UCF at Hoglund Ballpark. [Kansas Athletics photo]

Then, after that triple in the sixth inning, he knew exactly where he stood entering his at-bat in the seventh. Even then, though, he didn’t really think about the cycle until he was walking toward the batter’s box and a young fan in the stands yelled out to him, asking if he was going to go for the cycle.

“At that point, I was like, ‘Oh wow,’” Cranford recalled. “I was literally walking up to the plate when he said that. Then I went down (in the count) 0-2 and I was like, ‘Well, I guess it ain’t happening.’ But I got a pitch to hit and the rest is history.”

After working the pitcher to a full count in the at-bat, Cranford had just one final thought before the pitch that made history.

“I knew he was throwing a heater,” he said. “At that point, I was like, ‘Man, let’s just get it up to right field and see what the wind does with it.’ I got the perfect pitch to hit and put a good swing on it.”

The swing on a belt high fastball carried the ball over the right field fence and set off a wild celebration. Cranford said one of the first people he looked at when he reached home plate was his father in the stands.

“He was fired up,” he said. "That was cool."

After that, it was high-fives and hugs from teammates for what seemed like hours. He said his phone blew up with messages from friends and family back home for the next few days.

Perhaps the best part about Cranford’s cycle was the fact that he did not in any way set out to get it. Each hit was the result of the same approach at the plate that he takes into every at-bat. Discipline. Patience. Effort. Execution.

On this night, those elements led to one of the more memorable moments of his playing career. On any other night, they could’ve led to balls that landed in the gloves of his opponents.

Such is baseball. And Cranford loves it just the way it is.

“I was just playing ball, man,” he said. “Taking what the game gives me. I’m just trying to win ballgames and trying to do a job, whatever that job may be, when I’m up at the plate. And I guess I just got lucky.”

Luck may have played a part in this latest feat. But so, too, did skill. So, which of the four hits was the most difficult to collect on his historic night?

“Probably the triple,” he said. “That’s always the hardest one, especially at our park. It’s not huge so the gaps aren’t huge.”

KU's Collier Cranford yells to his teammates in the dugout after one of his four hits during a March win over UCF in which the Kansas shortstop hit for the cycle. [Kansas Athletics photo]

Although he never would’ve known a cycle was in his future when he committed to Kansas after three seasons at LSU, Cranford had a feeling that he was brought to KU for a reason.

Following former LSU assistant and current KU head coach Dan Fitzgerald to Lawrence was a big part of it. And Cranford said he hardly hesitated when Fitzgerald reached out to him about joining him at KU.

“He kind of told me from the beginning, ‘Look, dude, we need you, we really want you, I think this is a perfect fit for you,’” Cranford recalled. “Within a week or two, I was headed up here. Opportunity aside, baseball aside, I just think he’s a really good human being. My dad’s said this multiple times: He’s just the type of guy you’d want to send your kid off to and have him take care of them.”

That connection to Fitzgerald helped the Cranford family feel comfortable with sending their son to the far-off world known as Kansas, away from the comforts of home and the baseball-crazed Tiger fans at LSU.

“I’m a Louisiana kid, born and raised,” Cranford said. “Grew up a huge LSU baseball fan. That’s just what you do down there. And I was very fortunate to play there for three year of my career. I didn’t know much about Kansas at first, to be honest with you, but I knew it was a good opportunity.”

Even though he misses the Cajun food something fierce and has had to get used to a new climate, with gameday highs in the 30s and 40s at times, it’s clear that he has grown to love Lawrence and KU.

It might’ve been completely random when he first wrote down the name Kansas on that list of schools all those years ago. But now that he’s seen it firsthand and experienced all the school and area have to offer him as a baseball player and a person, Cranford doesn’t think it was all that random at all.

“It’s honestly been amazing – a dream come true,” he said. “I love Lawrence. I love the people. The University of Kansas, from the top, (KU Athletic Director) Travis Goff, all the way down through, has nothing but great people. I’ve loved every second of being here.”

Next up, Cranford and the Jayhawks (15-11 overall, 7-5 in Big 12 play) will host West Virginia for a 3-game series at Hoglund Ballpark this weekend.

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