Kent: Coming off its first College World Series berth last season, no one expected the Kent State baseball team would be trying to re-create the magic of last year while playing what’s shaped up to be the toughest schedule in program history.
“When I did it two years ago, I thought it would be a good schedule,” ninth-year coach Scott Stricklin said. “I didn’t feel like it would be as tough as it is. But 22 of our first 23 games are on the road and 17 of those games are against teams that are projected to play in regionals. Our first 11 games are played against teams that are projected to go into regionals — and they’re all on the road.”
Coming off a season in which Stricklin’s Golden Flashes won a school-record 47 games and made a surprising trip to Omaha, the tough schedule isn’t allowing KSU to ease into the 2013 season. But for some, hitting the ground running is just fine.
“The teams we’re playing early, those are the teams you really get up to play,” said junior left fielder T.J. Sutton, a GlenOak product. “So we might as well start out that way. Knowing what we did last year and how far we went, fans are going to come out to watch us. And I think when the lights are on and there’s a lot of fans in the stands, we’ll be just as ready as any of the southern teams.”
Like most cold-weather northern teams, Kent State always has a tougher road at the beginning of each season. Unlike southern teams, the Flashes are stuck inside for practice during the winter months and then play a good portion of the early schedule on the road in warmer climates.
In fact, it wasn’t until late Sunday afternoon that the team had its first practice outside at Schoonover Stadium, the Flashes taking advantage of balmy 45-degree weather — albeit with snow still on the ground in many areas.
“Our first 11 games are going to be extremely challenging,” Stricklin said. “It doesn’t get much easier after that. I don’t know what to expect yet, but I think we’ll play well, compete well. But to be ready to play at that high of level early in the season is going to be really tough. If you look at the history of our program, we’ve always gotten better in May. May and June is when we play our best because we’ve hit our stride.
“It’s tough to do that in February and March because we’ve been inside. Our kids haven’t caught a fly ball yet. Our kids haven’t had spikes on yet. They haven’t been on dirt yet. It’s a really big challenge and those are things people don’t think about. We haven’t caught a fly with clouds and wind and sun yet. That stuff always comes into play early on.”
Although the Flashes have won the last four Mid-American Conference Championship titles, it’s a tough way to advance to postseason play each year. One wrong misstep or off day by a pitcher and an entire season could go up in smoke.
“The next step for our program is to be in position where we can get an at-large bid,” Stricklin said. “Like Akron in basketball right now, they’ve got to get that RPI up if they don’t win the MAC Tournament. That’s where we are, too. But it’s tough to get that RPI high when you’re playing good teams on the road and you haven’t been outside yet. It’s a double-edged sword. The only way to build your RPI is to get those early wins. But those early wins are hard to come by.”
What should work in KSU’s favor is the fact that the core from last year’s team that finished the season ranked sixth in the nation by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper returns this season.
Ranked 19th as the season begins this weekend at North Carolina-Wilmington, Kent State returns three of its top five hitters including reigning MAC Player of the Year and senior infielder George Roberts.
While graduation and the pro ranks have claimed last year’s top two pitchers in David Starn and Ryan Bores, junior right-hander Tyler Skulina (Walsh Jesuit) is ready to step in as the Flashes’ ace.
“Because he got better and better as we went [last season], that was a big reason we had the success we did,” Stricklin said of Skulina, who along with Roberts was named a Louisville Slugger Pre-Season All-American. “Tyler was pitching in the three hole and he was better than everyone else he was pitching against.”
So far, the Flashes bullpen is a mix of depth with no defined closer just yet.
“We kind of have a closer by committee right now,” Stricklin said. “We have four guys in the bullpen with a lot of experience who we feel real good about. The first three guys — [left-handers] Brian Clark, Michael Clark and [right hander] Josh Pierce — pitched a lot last year in Omaha and in the Super Regionals and are in contention to be the closer. Another guy who’s really come on strong for us is [right hander] Eric Dorsch, who pitched a little for us last year as a redshirt freshman, but not in pressure situations. But he’s probably made the biggest jump out of any of our guys.”
The crazy thing is, it was this year’s 2013 team that Stricklin and the rest of the coaching staff thought would probably have the best chance to put Kent State on the national map.
“If you would have asked me before last year which team would be better, I felt the 2013 team would be better,” Stricklin said. “I don’t know if I feel that way now after what happened last year, but we did feel that way as a staff. We felt the 2011 team was our most talented team, but we ran into Texas, that was a tough draw. Our 2012 team we felt would be good, we should win another championship, but didn’t know how far we could get. We kind of looked ahead at this year’s team and said, ‘This team will be very talented.’ We still feel that way, its just expectations are a little bit higher than they were.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.