Kent State, other mid-majors making splash
Kent State, St. John's and Stony Brook are heading to the NCAA super regionals, and casual fans who follow college baseball only in June must be asking, "Who are these guys?"
Mid-majors that have invested in their programs are making the road to the College World Series a lot bumpier for the traditional powers.
The unpredictability is great for fans but not so much for the elite programs that used to write trips to Omaha, Neb., on their schedules in pen rather than pencil.
"Athletic departments and athletic directors are recognizing that baseball is the least expensive opportunity to win a national championship that is televised nationally," said Texas' Augie Garrido, the all-time winningest coach in Division I. "In football, these smaller schools aren't going to have a chance to dance with the giants. In baseball, the parity is extreme."
Texas has played in a nation-leading 55 NCAA baseball tournaments since 1947 but didn't make it this year for the first time in 14 years.
Two-time defending national champion South Carolina, 2011 national runner-up Florida and Stanford are among the usual suspects still alive. But familiar names like North Carolina, Virginia and Miami are not after being among the six No. 1 regional seeds to go down this past weekend.
Mid-American Conference champion Kent State (44-17) will be in a super regional for the first time when it plays a best-of-three series at Oregon beginning Saturday.
Same with Big East champion St. John's (40-21), which goes to Arizona, and America East champ Stony Brook (50-12), which visits LSU. Those series start Friday.
Kent State has made the NCAA tournament four straight years and eight times since 2001. This year's breakthrough comes for a program with an annual budget of $740,000 -- a bargain by college athletics standards.
Athletic director Joel Nielsen can only imagine the bang for the buck he'd get if the Golden Flashes, who are on a nation-leading 20-game win streak, make it to Omaha.
"I think there is a lot to be said for making the College World Series and the exposure it brings at a time when it's the only thing going on in college athletics," Nielsen said.
Mid-majors have benefited from the 2-year-old NCAA rule allowing only 27 of the 35 players on a roster to get a cut of a team's 11.7 total scholarships. Each of those 27 players must receive at least a 25-percent scholarship.
"There are a lot of very good players who are spread around now," Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. "The scholarship limitations have taken away from the big schools that were just giving kids books. Those kids would go because they wanted to play at a big-name school. So now players who might be sitting on the bench in the SEC, Big 12 or ACC are playing at the so-called mid-majors and playing right away."
Another factor is the toned-down aluminum bats. They've neutralized the teams that once dominated with bigger and stronger athletes.
"You're seeing more one- or two-run ball games, and that means you have to change the way you play," St. John's coach Ed Blankmeyer said. "It becomes pitching, defense and timely hitting. You get guys who can pitch and catch the ball, you can make some noise."
Kent State and St. John's made it through regionals as No. 3 seeds with 3-0 records.
The Golden Flashes beat Southeastern Conference power Kentucky twice in one-run games in Gary, Ind., the first of those wins requiring 21 innings. The Red Storm beat top-seeded North Carolina twice in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Stony Brook, on the other hand, had to stave off elimination three times and beat second-seeded Central Florida twice for the championship. The Seawolves are the third No. 4 regional seed to advance since the super-regional format began in 1999. The last No. 4 to make it out of regionals, Fresno State in 2008, won a national championship.
Matt Senk, who has coached at Stony Brook for 22 years and led the Long Island school's transition to Division I in 2000, said his players were "euphoric" after the regional but won't be intimidated by playing at LSU's raucous Alex Box Stadium.
"The happy-to-be-here mentality might have existed back in 2004 when we went to the tournament for the first time," Senk said. "Certainly in 2008, that changed a little bit, and in 2010 we picked up our first win in a regional. We just felt like this was what we were building for and that it was time to make it happen."
Stony Brook has won 26 of its last 28 games and is the first team in the nation to reach 50 victories.
If the Seawolves win two more, they're heading to Omaha.
"I would absolutely love for that to happen," Senk said, "but, boy, we've got a huge obstacle in our way. But these things don't happen if you don't allow yourself to dream it."