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College baseball needs more Black players. A tiny Kansas school has a unique approach to recruiting

In a posed portrait, four members of the Davis family stand on home plate of a baseball field with three coaches of the Kansas Christian College baseball team.
Kim Triplett
Triple T Cross Media
From left, Dennis Hurla, coach Tony Hurla, Kris Davis and his family, and assistant coach Greg Turner after Kansas Christian College's 2024 Senior Day game in April at the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy.

Only about 5% of college baseball players and coaches are African American. At Kansas Christian College, team leaders have made a deliberate effort to recruit from inner-city Kansas City — boosting Black representation in the process.

Kansas Christian College, in Overland Park, is bucking a trend.

In a collegiate sport where African American representation is in short supply, almost a third of the private school’s student-athletes in baseball are Black.

“It’s been our mission, in the very beginning when I was hired to take on this program,” said Falcons baseball coach Tony Hurla, who has led the team since 2019.

Though the institution is affiliated with the Church of God (Holiness), school leaders recruit students of various denominations and backgrounds. Of the approximately 200 students at KCC, Hurla said around 60% to 70% are minorities.

“It’s something I’m passionate about as well, having grown up in Kansas City, to give opportunity to urban-area kids,” said Hurla, echoing a priority that was instilled by his father, Dennis Hurla. The elder Hurla was a former Bishop Ward High School head coach who directed the Cyclones to 10 Kansas baseball championships.

According to NCAA statistics, only 5% of baseball players in all divisions are African American. That number drops to 3% for NCAA teams that don’t come from historically Black colleges and universities.

At Kansas Christian, which plays against NAIA and lower-division NCAA schools but is in the National Christian College Athletic Association, 10 of Hurla’s players come from within urban Kansas City, Missouri, or Kansas City, Kansas. In those public school systems, minority students make up the majority.

Starting at the grassroots

A baseball player wearing a yellow No. 46 jersey, grey pants, and blue socks winds up to swing as he awaits the arrival of a pitch.
Kim Triplett
Triple T Cross Media
In 45 games this season, Kris Davis had a batting average of .256 with a career-high three home runs and nine doubles.

When he was younger, Falcons’ senior catcher Kris Davis bounced around between several schools, dating back to his preteen years on Chicago’s South Side.

“When I was 12 years old, my mom and my father, we moved to Kansas City for a better living environment. It was too dangerous, like the gangs out there, stuff like that,” said Davis, who finished high school at Park Hill South, where 11% of the student body is Black.

“Big Kris,” as he’s called by his teammates, stands 6-foot-5 — 2 inches taller than the catcher he admires most, Salvador Perez of the Kansas City Royals.

“In our first full year of the program, six of our nine starters were African American,” Davis noted. “I played against these guys growing up and it was like being at home, just playing with that chemistry.”

“Tony Hurla and Papa (Dennis) Hurla are awesome coaches. I really praise God for them,” Davis said.

Kim Triplett
Triple T Cross Media
At 6 feet, 5 inches tall, Davis is a big target for infielders when he occasionally plays first base.

Now settled, Davis stood tall as one of eight players recognized at his team’s Senior Day game in April at the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy, where KCC hosts the 2024 NCCAA Baseball World Series this week.

With his senior year as a player drawing to a close, Davis is interested in pursuing coaching as a career path, and more than willing to start at the grassroots level.

“Probably (I’ll) coach an RBI team just to get the head coaching experience,” he said, referring to Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities program. “I want to take coaching to the next level — as far as I can honestly.”

‘We’re still talking about firsts'

For Black players who are interested in coaching like Davis, a dearth of college baseball coaches who look like them doesn’t bode well. Only 3% of the coaches at all NCAA levels are African American. At non-HBCU institutions in 2023, there were just nine Black head coaches.

Kerrick Jackson became the first African American head baseball coach in Southeastern Conference history when he was named the University of Missouri’s 15th head coach in June 2023.

“It’s good and bad,” Jackson told KCUR before the season began. “It’s good because we’re breaking some glass ceilings. It’s bad because it’s 2024 and we’re still talking about firsts.”

At Kansas State University in Manhattan, assistant coach Austin Wates is the Big 12 Conference’s only African American coach. Wates was a scout in Texas before K-State head coach Pete Hughes hired him.

“You want to have a background and a resume that says: ‘This guy’s got a shot to do a really good job,’” Wates said recently. “But it also takes an administrator taking a little bit of a leap of faith, like coach Hughes did for me.”

That’s part of why KCC’s coach Hurla keeps tabs on former players, to improve the pipeline of talent in baseball roles that aren’t strictly on-the-field.

“A couple of them went on to work at the Urban Youth Academy and another is umpiring in the local community,” he said.

As much as the Falcons would like to win a title at this week’s national championship (their best finish was fifth in 2022), Hurla says there are other lessons to be learned.

“I want them to be able to handle success without gloating, handle failure without giving in, and I want to see them embrace challenges in their life,” he said.

A baseball coach in a Kansas Christian baseball hoodie and cap poses for a portrait near the foul ball net of a baseball field.
Greg Echlin
KCUR 89.3
Recruiting minority players has been Tony Hurla's mission since taking over in 2019 as the Kansas Christian College head baseball coach.

With that kind of support, “Big Kris” Davis’ hopes for a coaching job, and a bigger spotlight down the road, seem that much more possible.

“People don’t understand … how many opportunities baseball has,” said Davis. “There’s some talent here. There’s some talent in the inner city. I say to these scouts who come here, check us out, honestly.”

The 2024 NCCAA Baseball World Series begins at 11 a.m. on Saturday, May 18, and runs through Wednesday, May 22, at the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy, 1622 E. 17th Terrace, Kansas City, Missouri 64106. Day passes are $25 and tournament passes are $75. For more information, visit theNCCAA.org/sports.

Sports have an economic and social impact on our community and, as a sports reporter, I go beyond the scores and statistics. I also bring the human element to the sports figures who have a hand in shaping the future of not only their respective teams but our town. Reach me at gregechlin@aol.com.
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