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'It's just the selflessness of the guys'

Jayhawks' 2-year turn-around under Dan Fitzgerald built on versatility & team-first approach

3 min read
The Kansas baseball team huddles together after a win over Houston in their final home series of the 2024 season. [Kansas Athletics photo]

Two years into the Kansas baseball rebuild under head coach Dan Fitzgerald, the Jayhawks have positioned themselves to make a run at a postseason berth.

There’s still work to do for KU to get in and it’s a bit of a long shot after a tough three-game sweep by Texas over the weekend that included the Longhorns winning Game 1 and Game 2 in walk-off fashion in the bottom of the ninth inning.

But the Jayhawks have been in the conversation and they’ve proven that they can compete with anybody.

Not bad for a team made up of transfers and new faces that, for the second year in a row, have come together through the old-fashioned art of just being ballplayers and competing for the love of the game.

The Jayhawks (29-21 overall, 15-15 Big 12) will need to do a lot of that this week in Arlington, Texas, where they’ll open play in the Big 12 tournament as the No. 7 seed, with a Round 1 game against No. 6 Kansas State on Tuesday.

When he was introduced as the Jayhawks’ new head coach and replacement to veteran Ritch Price in June of 2022, Fitzgerald talked about the challenges facing Kansas baseball as it moved forward.

But none of them scared him. None of them seemed too daunting. None of them were unsolvable.

The reason? Simple.

“They’re everywhere,” he said of the challenges in roster building, facilities, weather and more. “I think every program has their own set. But you can out-team someone. We can out-together someone.”

And that’s exactly what they’ve done.

Look no further than the way he has built his first couple of KU rosters as proof of that.

Most of it has come from mining the transfer portal and killing it at the juco ranks. Bringing in grown men with college baseball experience to jumpstart this turn-around.

But there’s more to it than that. Much more.

So many of the guys he has handed a KU uniform to during the past couple of years have had one thing in common that serves the Jayhawks well and ties them directly to that idea of out-teaming people.

Cole Elvis played three positions last season. Jake English has played the same three positions this season — first base, catcher and designated hitter. And both were among the team leaders in all kinds of offensive categories, none more notable than home runs.

Kodey Shojinaga, who was recruited to KU as a catcher, has played catcher, first, second and third. Ben Hartl has played both catcher and first base this season and this month.

Michael Brooks, who, as a transfer himself, has been one of the mainstays on both of Fitzgerald’s KU teams, has played both third and second this season. Sometimes in the same inning.

Although Brooks missed time late in the regular season with an injury, prior to that he and Shojinaga would switch positions at second and third depending on whether there was a left-handed hitter or right-handed hitter at the plate.

“Nobody does that,” Hartl marveled recently in an interview with R1S1 Sports. “There’s a ton of pride there. It’s kind of a you play your role, you play as hard as you can and when your name is called you’re supposed to do your job. It’s pretty cool.”

Even true freshmen Ty Wisdom and Dom Voegele have fallen in line with that philosophy.

Wisdom was recruited as an infielder but found a way into the lineup as an outfielder because of his bat. And Voegele, who was under-recruited out of high school, came to KU just hoping to have a role. His role turned out to be this team’s No. 2 starter and he currently sits among the Big 12 leaders in wins.

While the concept of giving whatever you’ve got for the greater good runs throughout the roster, it also makes Kansas a little tougher to scout.

“They never know what they’re getting,” Hartl said of KU’s opponents.

Fitzgerald, however, knows exactly what he’s getting — from every player, pretty much every day, as they continue to build the future of Kansas baseball.

Hartl, who still has another year of eligibility after this season, said the whole process comes down to one thing.

“I think it’s just the selflessness of the guys,” he said.

First pitch for Tuesday’s early-morning conference tourney opener is slated for 9 a.m. K-State took two of three from the Jayhawks in Manhattan earlier this month in the regular-season series between the two Sunflower State rivals.

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