Goal: Ko championship
POSTED: Friday, February 20, 2009
Fresno State's magical run through the College World Series last year has made a lot of teams believe they can do the same.
One of those squads resides in Provo, Utah. Brigham Young opens its baseball season today with high hopes.
Senior first baseman Kasey Ko, a 2005 Punahou graduate, is one of nine returning starters on offense as the Cougars bring back their entire lineup from a season ago. That experience, mixed with the belief they can be the next Fresno State, has Ko thinking big for his final season.
"I just like how (Fresno State) shows that at almost any Division I school, you can win," Ko said. "You're playing Division I for a reason. Given the opportunity, any time you can get hot, you can go all the way."
Ko has yet to taste the postseason with the Cougars, even though BYU finished second in the Mountain West Conference his freshman and sophomore seasons.
Part of the problem is the Cougars haven't faced the toughest nonconference opposition, but that will change this season. BYU opens with two ranked teams this weekend—Oklahoma State (No. 13, ESPN/USA Today) tomorrow and Baylor (No. 8, Baseball America) on Monday.
BYU also has tough road trips at Wichita State, Western Carolina, Washington and Oregon State.
"This is probably the best nonconference schedule we have had since I've been here," Ko said. "It just gives us an opportunity to show everybody in the nation that we can take off and be a good team."
The 2005 Gatorade Hawaii Player of the Year set the table for Punahou's run of five state championships by helping win the first two.
The Buffanblu have won three more since Ko left for BYU, but he isn't surprised at Punahou's continued success.
"(Last year's senior class) were freshmen when I was a senior in high school," Ko said. "I knew there was definitely a shot for them to win three more. They had a lot of talent."
While his alma mater has put together title after title, Ko hopes he can bring some of that to the Cougars. Individually, Ko has had little problem taking his game to the collegiate level, hitting .330 for his career with eight homers and 106 RBIs.
He's hit better than .340 each of the past two seasons and has twice been named second team All-Mountain West Conference.
His numbers are good enough to potentially earn a look from teams in the upcoming MLB draft, but he's quick to say this season isn't about positioning himself for the future.
"I try not to let the pressure of the draft dictate how I play," Ko said. "Definitely for sure I would love to try just to see how far I could go (in the pros), but I'm not going out there to try to get drafted.
"I want to win a championship."
Despite all the returning starters, BYU was only picked to finish fourth in the preseason MWC poll. Part of the problem is the Cougars' inexperience on the mound. Like a lot of teams hoping for big years this season, how quickly the BYU pitchers can grow up will determine how far the team goes.
"Our pitching just needs to be consistent," Ko said. "Consistency is a lot more important than a guy throwing a no-hitter and then the next day a guy gets shelled."
"If our pitchers can hold them to three or four runs a game, as an offense we know we can score more than that."
Ko's career at BYU has seen its share of memorable moments. As a freshman, he faced last year's National League Cy Young Award winner, Tim Lincecum, twice when Lincecum pitched for Washington. Ko struck out once and earned a walk.
"It was definitely an eye-opener," Ko said. "I knew when I faced him he'd be really good. I don't know if I would have said he would have a won a Cy Young a couple years later, though."
Facing a top-level guy like Lincecum in college has been the toughest transition to college for Ko. His experience at Punahou, and learning the small-ball style of baseball played in Hawaii, has helped him focus on just hitting the best- and hardest-throwing guys in college.
"In Hawaii, it's more control and throw more pitches for strikes, but I think that has helped me," Ko said. "You're so used to small ball and playing defense and it allows me to focus on hitting more.
"I don't have to focus as much on my defense. Once I made it to college, it's more now we just need to take that step and improve and get used to all the power arms."