NILES, Ohio – Just when most of us in Ohio had forgotten it existed, the sun started coming out recently, at least for a few hours at a time.
Vitamin Overdue. It’s helped the Kent State baseball team shake one hell of a hangover.
At least in college baseball terms, it may have been the king of hangovers. Last June, Kent State’s season of dreams didn’t end until just five teams were left in the College World Series. The Golden Flashes went from the No. 3 seed in sub-regional play to defeating highly-ranked Oregon in the Super Regionals to Omaha, college baseball’s Promised Land.
This year’s team was promised nothing. It took a while for that to sink in.
“We certainly talked about turning the page,” Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. “We have a lot of guys back, but there was a point I needed to talk to these guys about making their own history. We played very good teams early in the year and it took us a while to get comfortable, but we did feel that we should re-address the fact that this team is going to have earn everything — and do it while wearing a big target on our backs.”
On the first weekend of March, Kent State was 1-9 after unsuccessful trips to North Carolina, San Diego and Louisville — and certainly not in Omaha anymore.
“We played great teams, all on the road,” Stricklin said. “We hadn’t been outside much (at home) because of the weather. But it came back to making plays, not making excuses, and we weren’t doing that.”
Said returning center fielder Evan Campbell: “There was a down period where we needed to snap out of it. But I don’t know if it was really all the hangover. We know we’re getting everybody’s best shot. For a while, the way we were playing just wasn’t good baseball.”
The Flashes lost their top two starting pitchers and their leaders at shortstop and catcher from last season, all to the Major League Baseball draft. Returning slugger George Roberts suffered a hand injury on his second at-bat of the season. There was going to be a rut — Stricklin knew that — but it didn’t have to be a prolonged one. Stricklin spurned outside interest and signed a new deal at his alma mater. The coaching staff is intact for a ninth year
“We put the focus on trying to be consistent and meet these high expectations,” Stricklin said. “We have good kids, first and foremost, and we have good baseball players. It was time them for earn their stripes.”
The Flashes have won six straight games and are 25-20 on the season after rallying from 5-1 and 8-3 deficits to score a 9-8 road win over Youngstown State on Wednesday. With three weekend series remaining in Mid-American Conference play, the Flashes are in third place but just over a game out of first. To get back to the NCAA tournament, they’ll have to win the MAC tournament.
With a little more sunshine and a little more consistency at the plate, Kent State figures to be a team nobody wants to see when those tournament starts, both for the name on the front of the jerseys and the talent on the scorecard.
New addition Taylor Williams has assumed the No. 1 pitching role, ahead of highly-touted 6’6 fireballer Tyler Skulina. Kent State’s third starter last year, Skulina had a couple bad outings and plenty of bad luck early in the season. Williams has been “spectacular,” Stricklin said, and both are reaching top form at the proper time.
That run to the College World Series — the first by a MAC team since 1976 — forever changed Kent State baseball. It changed the program’s profile, visibility both inside and out of baseball circles and its ability to recruit blue-chip prospects. It changed standards, it changed opponents’ attitudes and it will eventually change day-to-day operations, too. Lights are in place at Kent State’s home field, and an indoor pitching and hitting facility is approved for construction.
“Things are going to take off from here,” said T.J. Sutton, a starting outfielder on both this and last year’s team. “A lot of it, most people probably won’t see until I’m gone. But I joked the other day with somebody that it’s probably a good thing I got here when I did. With the studs they’re going to recruit now, I might not have been on the board.”
Campbell said playing in the outfield gives him plenty of time to think, and he admitted to spending some time thinking back to last year’s run. They were positive thoughts, he said, and served as motivation to fuel himself and his teammates for another run through May and June.
He looks around when he’s thinking, too. Kent State played in front of more than 4,000 fans in Oregon in the Super Regional and more than 20,000 fans in Omaha. There were 50 — maybe 55, tops — there when Kent State played Youngstown State in Niles, Ohio on Wednesday.
“Especially at Buffalo (two weeks ago), I caught myself thinking about Omaha,” Campbell said. “It was raining and there were, like, 12 people there.”
Said Sutton: “We had things rolling last year to the point that not only we were getting every break, every bounce and every call, we started expecting to get them. There was some magic involved, no question. And it’s the time of year for this team to look forward and understand we’re going to have make our own magic by getting hits and doing the little things right.”
Back at the Flashes home field, Schoonover Stadium, there’s a new, huge banner in right-center field commemorating the College World Series run, and in the home dugout is a mural of some of last June’s top moments. There are also lights, a $998,000 project that had been in the works but was completed this spring. Stricklin got the call on the field at Oregon last June during the wild celebration from a school administrator confirming that the project had been green-lighted.
The timing of the call was not coincidental.
Neither, Stricklin hopes, is the timing of this current win streak. There are new faces in the lineup and in the bullpen, but experienced players return. Stricklin would like to see more consistent hitting, but the Flashes eventually are going to have win a tournament (the MAC tournament in Avon, Ohio) to get to the NCAA tournament regional round, and so on. With starting pitchers like Williams and Skulina, the Flashes figure to be tournament ready.
We know they’re tournament tested. Last year is long over, but now that the sun is out and the games really count, it’s hard to discount that experience, especially combined with the type of talent that’s in the Kent State dugout.
“It’s amazing how many people were watching last June,” Stricklin said. “And we are very proud of that, too. People look at us differently now, but we still have to go out and play nine innings of baseball, no matter where we are and who we’re playing against.
“These kids have put in the work. If we hit the ball, we’ll have a chance to write our own chapter.