OMAHA, Neb. — It was a week ago Wednesday that Kent State center fielder Evan Campbell — exactly the kind of smallish, small-town kid who embodies this Kent State baseball team — peeked out his hotel room window and saw TD AmeriTrade Park, home of the College World Series.
Campbell just sat there for a minute, soaking it all in.
“We’re really here,” he said.
A week later, the Golden Flashes are still here, still living a charmed life that’s seen them survive stiff competition, incredible drama and a bunch of nail-biters. Their reward for holding on to oust No. 1 seed Florida 5-4 on Monday is another elimination game Wednesday night with South Carolina, the two-time defending national champion.
Campbell’s diving catches — one vs. Florida and one that sealed Game 1 of the Super Regional at Oregon — have been part of the magic that started with a 21-inning win over Kentucky in the first game of the NCAA tournament almost three weeks ago. The Flashes keep getting the big hit, the big strike and the lucky bounce that allow them to play on.
Kent State and Stony Brook came to this College World Series as the party crashers, Cinderellas with remarkable stories who had defeated history and convention and now would be faced with the daunting task of trying to defeat college baseball’s blue bloods.
Stony Brook got bounced in two games. Kent State went flat and got a little overwhelmed in losing to Arkansas 8-1 in its World Series opener, then came back to beat Florida despite walking the bases loaded on 12 straight pitches to start the ninth inning of a one-run game.
Just another day at the park that’s led to another day at the park.
“Our kids have made big plays, and to do it on such a big stage, it’s been fun,” Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. “That’s the satisfying part, that the country gets to watch us play. Every game we’ve played the past five games has been the biggest game in school history, and we keep playing them.
“I thought we were really loose and relaxed (vs. Florida). Defensively, we played great. On the mound, we were good early on and it was a little shaky at the end. But we made it entertaining. It’s amazing how many text messages and emails I got from people talking about heart attacks . . . living and dying with every pitch.
“In the dugout, we feel the same way.”
On Saturday, Kent State’s players heard “SEC, SEC” chants from the crowd, and not just from Arkansas fans. The taunts included colorful statements about going back to Ohio and the clock striking midnight.
As the Florida game came down to the final innings on Monday, some of those in the crowd changed their tunes.
“There’s one Cinderella left,” Kent State catcher David Lyon said. “It seems like all of Omaha has adopted us and is rooting us on.”
As for the penchant for getting the right breaks and bounces going all the way back to the regional in Gary, the Flashes won’t apologize for being 5-1 in NCAA tournament games decided by one run. They’re focused on the next play, the next clutch hit, the next diving catch.
“I wouldn’t say we expect it, but it is funny how we keep making strange things seem routine,” Campbell said. “There’s always something weird happening.”
Eventually, a team that’s adopted and embraced the motto “Bite Down” has to bite through its lip, right?
“We keep finding a way,” Lyon said. “It’s a whole team effort. That’s the way it’s been. I can’t explain it except to say we keep getting the job done.”
There is a certain level of satisfaction Stricklin takes in simply getting here, but Stricklin made sure his team put that aside after Saturday’s loss to Arkansas. Kent State brought its “A” game vs. Florida, and that proved to be enough.
Even if it was just barely.
The beat goes on. At least one more game does, too.
“We talked before the Florida game and said we were going to be loose, relax and have fun — and advance in Omaha,” Stricklin said. And that’s what these kids did. There was no tension. Certainly there were some nerves there in the ninth, but our kids were the aggressors. If you were watching that game and had never seen a college baseball game before and didn’t know any better, we looked awfully good out there.
“We were here and we belong here. That’s the most important thing that we wanted as a team and as a program and as a university was to make a statement that we belong here. We’re not a fluke. We’re a really good baseball team. (Beating Florida) is the biggest win in school history.”
Beating South Carolina on Wednesday night is the only way to surpass it.