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College | Story | 3/29/2019

Zeferjahn, J'hawks home at last

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Ryan Zeferjahn (Kansas Athletics)

PG College Player Database: Ryan Zeferjahn

The Big 12 Conference’s Kansas Jayhawks played their 24th game of the season Wednesday night, a non-conference contest against the Missouri State Bears, played at Hammons Field in Springfield, Missouri.

Nothing about that opening sentence is remarkable in and of itself, but those last three words – “in Springfield, Missouri” – are worth noting. That’s because 24 games into the season, the Jayhawks had yet to play a game “in Lawrence, Kansas.” Twenty-four games down, 24 games on the road.

That changes tonight, weather permitting, of course. Kansas is scheduled to host Baylor in the first game of a Big 12 three-game series tonight at Hoglund Ballpark in Lawrence, Kansas! A month-and-a-half into their 2019 season and the Jayhawks will, at last, play their home-opener.

“Being on the road pretty much the whole year has been kind of tough,” Kansas ace and 2015 Perfect Game All-American Ryan Zeferjahn told PG during a telephone conversation early this week. “Knowing the Friday home-opener is (here) is a good feeling, just getting off the road and not bussing four or five hours or flying and everyone being jet-lagged or whatnot.

“Everyone’s looking forward to playing at home this week in front of, hopefully, a pretty good crowd against Baylor,” he added. “I’m especially looking forward to pitching in front of all my friends and family back home for the first time.”

KU’s 9-5 victory over Missouri State on Wednesday snapped a seven-game losing streak and left the Jayhawks with a 14-10 record heading into tonight’s game, not too shabby considering the circumstances.

All the travel can start to become a little bit of a grind for these programs that aren’t blessed with the best early spring weather back home. The Jayhawks have played everyone pretty close throughout their travels and suffered only one loss that could be described as a blowout (11-3 to St. John’s) during their seven-game losing streak.

“We’ve been just one pitch or one big swing away from getting over that hump,” Zeferjahn said. “We’re still working towards that and I think we’re eventually going to get there; it’s going to come soon.”

Kansas head coach Ritch Price told PG during a separate telephone conversation this week that he’s been surprised by just how tough playing 24 road games without a break – all since Feb. 15 – has been. They were originally scheduled to play their home-opener against Nebraska-Omaha on Feb. 20 after four games with South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg, S.C., but that game was weathered-out.

What followed was seven games at two cities in Texas and five games in Port Charlotte, Fla., and the Jayhawks won 11 of those 12, a stretch that included a nine-game winning streak.

They stood 13-3 when they left sunny Florida for a three-game set against St. John’s in Queens, N.Y., but that’s where they hit a wall. KU dropped all three of those games to the Johnnies, lost a 13-inning game to Wichita State in Wichita and then opened Big 12 play against Oklahoma in Norman, and were winless in the three-game series.

“It’s interesting because we won nine in a row and then we lost seven in a  row, but we’ve also lost four one-run games, too,” Price said. “Our starting pitching has been very good and then we’ve been good at the back-end of the games, but what’s been surprising is that we haven’t hit.

“The guys that have struggled here lately have been guys that have a proven track record of being successful, and the one thing that does for me is it gives us continued hope that if we just stay positive and we keep grinding, we’ll get through it.”

The glass-half-full side of this scenario is that the Jayhawks have seven, three-game series with Big 12 Conference opponents remaining on their schedule, which means they can write their own script.

Yes, they’re already 0-3 in league play and three of those seven series are against No. 14 Texas, No. 15 Texas Tech and No. 19 Texas Christian but everything worth taking is still within their grasp.

“That’s why you come to school here,” Price said. “You come here for that opportunity to play against those outstanding programs, too.”

 

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IT IS TELLING THAT PRICE MENTIONS HIS STARTING PITCHING
as a strength of this team, and that starts with the junior Ryan Zeferjahn, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound right-hander out of nearby Seaman High School in Topeka.

“Obviously, (Zeferjahn) is a special guy,” Price told PG. “He’s the one guy on our weekend staff that can be dominant every time you hand him the baseball and it’s a big year for him. He’s got a chance to be a first two-round draft pick if he continues to make progress and show the scouts that his development has continued from his sophomore year to his junior year.”

Zeferjahn came into the program as a decorated and highly regarded prep prospect and wasted no time acclimating himself to the demands of D-I college baseball. He made 13 starts during his freshman season in 2017 and 15 more last season on his way to collecting a team-high eight wins. He has six starts under his belt this season and stands 3-1 with a 2.31 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 35 innings.

“I came into this (season) knowing that it’s going to be a big year for me,” Zeferjahn said this week. “Preparing mentally and physically before the season was big and just keeping myself conditioned has been good. I’m pleased with what I’ve done so far; I’ve had some pretty good outings here and there. … It’s been a real good year for me so far, and I hope going forward it continues to get better.”

He headlines a weekend rotation that includes freshman right-hander Elijah Davis (2-3, 5.18 ERA) and junior righty Ryan Cyr (2-2, 5.24) and understands how important it is that he does a good job of setting the table on Friday night so a successful dinner party can continue into the weekend.

“If I have a good outing on Friday it just gives (Ryan) Cyr and Eli (Davis) confidence going into the next games knowing that they can just go after these guys,” Zeferjahn said. “I think it just builds confidence when other guys succeed. … Our pitching has been really good this year and I think we’re just feeding off each other and everyone’s confident in each other being able to go out there and perform.”

Zeferjahn performed at only three PG events during his high school career but they were the three biggest in the summer and fall of 2015: the PG National Showcase in Fort Myers, Fla., in June; the PG All-American Classic in San Diego in August and at the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in October. And, he seemed to out-do himself at every stop.

It started at the National when he earned Top Prospect List recognition with a fastball that sat 88-92 mph and impressive 77 mph slider. Those numbers went up to 90-93 with the fastball and 81 with the slider, and he added an 81 mph change in his one inning of work. Finally, in Jupiter playing with the Astros Scout Team/FTB Tucci, he impressed the scouts with a 94 mph heater.

“I think that really benefitted me, obviously, getting in front of all of those people,” Zeferjahn said. “and just being able to play against all those other kids and seeing what those guys I played with or played against have done either in pro ball or in college.

“I think being around not only the scouts but being around the players and getting to know them … really benefitted me down the road to where I am today.”

The Tampa Bay Rays selected Zeferjahn in the 37th round of the 2015 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Seaman High and admits that he did consider signing with the Rays. After some thought and family discussions he decided to pack his bags and head for Lawrence with the idea of earning a degree and then possibly starting a professional baseball career.

“I think it was the best decision to come to college; I don’t think I was physically ready to go into professional baseball right out of high school,” he said. “Three years of college was the best choice I’ve ever made so I think that’s been really good for me.”

The “student” side of the student-athlete tandem is very important to Zeferjahn, as evidenced by the 4.1 GPA he carried at Seaman HS and the 3.9 GPA he carries as a business major at KU. He took several college-level classes while he was still in high school giving him a bit of a head start and was named to the 2016-17 Academic All-Big 12 Rookie Team and the 2018 Academic All-Big 12 First Team.

“I knew that I wanted to (graduate) in three years, come in and get a degree, get out in three years and then start my (professional baseball) career then,” he said.

When asked to elaborate on the intangibles that Zeferjahn brings to the program, Price didn’t hold back. He called his ace right-hander “an amazing kid” before pointing out his high GPA and the fact that he’ll be graduating in three years.

Zeferjahn probably could have went to school just about anywhere in the country he wanted to go, but he’s very close to his family – parents Darin and LaTisha, sister Lauren and brother Nathan – and Topeka is only about 25 miles away from Lawrence. He’s been a Jayhawk all his life and Price both admires and respects the loyalty he’s shown to his hometown school.

Price noted that every time Zeferjahn made a Friday night start at home last season, there were probably as many as 30 to 50 people who drove in from Topeka just to watch him pitch: “When you see a young man that came to KU and is not afraid to be the underdog and now he’s achieving all of his goals, and he’s going to be a great Jayhawk for life when he’s done,” the head coach said.


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THIS IS RITCH PRICE’S 17TH SEASON SERVING AS THE HEAD COACH
of the Jayhawks’ program and he picked up his 500th victory at the school when the Jayhawks beat Northern Illinois in a game played in Melissa, Texas, on March 2. He has established a program where his teams are known for their toughness and their make-no-excuses style of play with players who go out and compete at a high level just because of the name across the front of their jerseys.

This year’s Jayhawks’ roster is stocked with plenty of guys from the Plains states like Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, but there are Texans, Californians and, yes, Hawaiians, as well.

Price said the state averages between six to nine Division-I prospects coming out of high school each year, and his goal is to get three of those top six guys to come to come to Lawrence. He has 11 Kansans on this year’s roster which is more, by his count, then either Kansas State or Wichita State.

“We work as hard as anybody in the country and when you have a talent like that and he leaves the state, it destroys you,” Price said.

Zeferjahn called Lawrence “a great college town” that offers everything a student-athlete can want without going over the top. And being a part of the baseball program has afforded him the opportunity to travel the country, having played games just this season in far-flung locales like South Carolina, Florida and New York.

“I definitely wanted to stay close to home and give my friends and family another couple of years to watch me,” Zeferjahn said. “I just wanted to come to KU – it was my favorite school growing up – and come to a program that was good and try to help (it) start building get to being one of the premier Big 12 schools.”

There are a lot of guys contributing this season in addition to the starting pitchers mentioned earlier. Freshman right-hander Stone Parker, sophomore righty Jonah Ulane, junior right-hander Blake Goldsberry and junior lefty Nathan Berry have all made at least 10 appearances out of the bullpen and all sport ERAs of 2.08 or lower.

Junior catcher/first baseman Jaxx Groshens has been a monster at the plate this season, hitting .361 with run-away team-highs of nine home runs and 30 RBI; junior outfielder Brett Vosik, junior infielders Benjamin Sems and James Cosentino and sophomore infielder Skyler Messinger have all started at least 23 games and are providing most of the offense to date; Messinger was a 22nd-round draft pick of the Cubs in 2017.

Zeferjahn pitched well in the Cape Cod League and with the USA Collegiate National Team last summer and with his strong start to this season has put himself in position to be an early round pick in June’s MLB Amateur Draft. But his focus, now as the calendar gets ready to flip over into April, is on helping the Jayhawks get back into the race for a Big 12 championship.

“Everyone knows that I’m going to be a draft prospect and they also know that it’s obviously in my head, but everyone knows that I’m going to be team-first,” he said. “Helping the team is going to help my draft stock anyway so going out there and pitching and getting my team a win is going to help me either way.

“It’s pretty much a win-win situation for me,” he added. “I know I’m thinking about it but obviously I’m thinking about the team first.”

A reawakening of sorts starts for the Jayhawks this weekend with the Baylor Bears coming to town for the first home series of the season. They also have Big 12 home series remaining with Oklahoma State (April 12-14), Texas (May 3-5) and Kansas State (May 17-19).

But the road-trips aren’t behind them, either. There are league road series against Texas Tech (April 5-7), West Virginia (April 19-21) and TCU (May 10-12) in the offing, not to mention non-league contests at Furman in Greenville, S.C. (April 26y-28) and at Air Force in Colorado Springs, Colo. (April 30-May 1).

“Our big thing is you’ve got to embrace the opportunity you’ve been given just to play in this great league; it’s what you came here for,” Price concluded. “Every weekend’s a challenge but at the same time if you take advantage of those opportunities you can have a special season before it’s over.”



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