Whole new ballgame ahead for Kent State

Kent State’s run to the College World Series made magic, made memories and made other college baseball programs — both above and below the Mason-Dixon line — take notice.

Does it make it any easier — or the path any different — to eventually get back?

That’s now the grand question.

For now, Kent State’s players need a nap. They returned to a hero’s welcome by almost 300 fans on campus Thursday night, about six hours after being eliminated by two-time defending national champion South Carolina. After two weeks on the road from the Super Regionals at Oregon and then a direct flight to Omaha, their first worry Thursday was finding their car keys and remembering how to get to their own beds.  

In a larger sense, though, a new set of expectations — and maybe a new reality — will follow this team and this program. Now that the Flashes kicked in what once seemed like an impenetrable door, their goal is to remember the way in next time.

Next year? Once every five years?

Those are questions without solid answers and questions that may not have seemed legitimate two weeks ago. But when Kent State and Stony Brook crashed the College World Series party and the Flashes eventually eliminated No. 1 seed Florida, it became clear that it can be done.

Is this the ceiling? Just how much of this was Kent State finding lightning in a bottle, and how much of it can be pushed forward? Only time will tell.

“It was disappointing to lose (Thursday),” Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. “But to be one of the last five teams standing when no one really gave us an opportunity to do that, it says a lot about our players and what we’ve been able to do as a program. We’re really proud.

“Now, we just build on this. Expectations have always been high for Kent State baseball but now it’s going to go on to a different level. We’re going to use this. Our program is going to continue to get bigger and stronger. We’re going to use it to continue to get recruits here. Expectations are going to be up, and that’s a good thing.”

Besides a safe landing from the cloud everyone associated with the Kent State program has been floating on, keeping Stricklin will be priority No. 1. Any time a coach from an upstart program leads this type of run, the big boys and their big wallets will come calling. Kent State has some pretty good resources and reasons Stricklin would and should stay, too, so that will be interesting.

As for next year, the talent will be there. It could be better than this year, actually. The Flashes lost five seniors and had three underclassmen drafted, but none who are guaranteed to leave. Two freshmen were in the regular starting lineup, and another stellar recruiting class is coming.
 
“We felt like next year was the team that might make another run,” Stricklin said. “We were disappointed to lose (at Texas) in the regionals a year ago with a very talented team.

“There’s no question the future is bright. We said it as coaches coming in and looking at the big board and the team we have, we felt like next year might be the year we could maybe make another run at it. Next year we thought was the year, talent-wise, that maybe we could get to a Super Regional.”

Now, as many as seven returning regulars and six pitchers have the experience of winning a Super Regional at Oregon.  

That group will be joined by talented newcomers, and increased competition should only make the team better. The blueprint will remain, too.

“We’re not going away from our formula,” Stricklin said. “We’re not going to start recruiting Texas or California or Florida. We do it with kids from Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. We do have a (recruit) from Michigan and one (junior-college transfer) from the state of Washington, but that’s a fluke. He played summer ball with some of our guys last summer and that’s how that happened.

“We’re not shying away from our formula that’s made us successful.”

This year’s team was undoubtedly helped by a mild Ohio winter that allowed Kent State to practice outside before starting its season in mid-February and play almost without interruption. The field turf on Kent State’s home field helps, but that wasn’t the only factor. The 2012 Kent State was 8-10 early in the season and finished 47-20. The Flashes finished the year by winning 23 of their last 26 and were 9-3 overall in neutral-site games.

That comes down to chemistry, leadership, pitching and defense.

The 2012 Flashes had all of the above. Future teams will try to use that as a plus, not a burden, and must embrace the new, higher expectations.

“I don’t think this changes anything (in the big picture),” Stricklin said. “There are 297 Div. I baseball teams, and every single one of those coaches, no matter if you’re ranked 297 or No. 1, at some point you mutter the word, ‘Omaha.’

“That’s not going to change. We’re always going to try to get here, continue to try to build it. If you think you don’t have to build any more, you’re done.”

At Kent State, the hope is that this thing is really just getting started.