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Kansas State’s baseball resume passed the NCAA Tournament test

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MANHATTAN – Kansas State baseball coach Pete Hughes was admittedly nervous Monday as the NCAA Tournament selection show approached.

By his calculations, losing three of the last four games, including a 1-2 record last week at the Big 12 tournament, wasn’t enough to vault the Wildcats out of the 64-team bracket. But it wasn’t his fault.

Fortunately for the Wildcats (32-24), who had been a fixture in the predictions all season, their 56-game haul held up and they were designated as the No. 3 seed behind host Arkansas (43-14) and Louisiana. Tech (45-17) in the Fayetteville Regional. It will be K-State’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons under Hughes and first as a program since 2013.

“You’re never 100%, and we’ve done a lot to get us away from that 100%,” said Hughes whose Wildcats will face Louisiana Tech on Friday at 7 p.m. in the first round of the four-team, double-elimination tournament that also includes No. .4 seed in Southeast Missouri State (34-25).

Related: TCU jumps on K-State baseball early, sending Wildcats packing in Big 12 elimination game

First, the Wildcats had a chance to end the regular season with a three-game sweep of Brigham Young, but they blew a two-out lead in the ninth inning. Then came a deflating 2-1 loss to Kansas to open the Big 12 Tournament, followed by a crucial 8-4 win over West Virginia before they were eliminated by TCU, 9-4.

“I just kept looking at the body of work, at the strength of the schedule, at the intent of the schedule, hoping that would help us,” said Hughes, who supported the non-conference schedule this year for that reason. “Because we played the toughest schedule in the league.

“We played one of the toughest schedules outside of the conference and overall schedule. And I kept leaning on that for our body of work and I hoped the committee would do the same, and they did.”

A year ago, the Wildcats were in a similar position, but were left out because their RPI and especially level of competition didn’t stack up in the eyes of the selection committee. And even though RPI took a hit the past two weeks, their No. 29 strength in the schedule, second in the Big 12, got them across the finish line.

Related: Owen Boerema pitches Kansas State baseball to Big 12 elimination win over West Virginia

For pitcher Owen Boerema and shortstop Kaelen Culpepper, who were reeling from last year’s disappointment, seeing K-State’s name on the board Monday brought a flood of emotions.

“The first one, I think, was just relief,” said Boerema, a super-senior lefthander who will start Friday against Louisiana Tech. “Last year it was a really bad feeling, knowing that we probably could have done more and should have done more during the season, but we were still on the edge.

“And then just happiness for the coaching staff, for the group of guys – all the hard work that everyone has put in has paid off – and now it’s time to have some fun and go for a run.”

Culpepper, a junior, tried to play it cool.

“I wanted to jump out because it’s the first regional I’ve ever gone to. So a lot of energy, a lot of emotions that I wanted to show,” said Culpepper, whose .316 batting average and 49 RBIs rank second. in the team. “But I had to keep my composure, so I clapped and laughed it off with the boys.

“We celebrated a little bit in the locker room, but I was happy for the boys. I think it will be another step towards our goal, so I’m excited.”

Now that the Wildcats are safely in the tournament, even Hughes can exhale.

“We are ranked sixth in the third best conference in any country. That sums up the tournament,” he said. “But you never feel comfortable. Until you become a traditional, brand-name program, you never feel comfortable on Memorial Day weekend.”

Arne Green is based in Salina and covers Kansas State University sports for the Gannett Network. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @arnegreen.

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