KENT: On the backdrop in right-center field, the 2012 College World Series logo gleamed in the bright sunshine.
Photographic murals from last year’s trip to Omaha now plaster the back of both dugouts, drawing family members who want to reminisce.
Eight newly installed light towers lord over Schoonover Stadium, the jet black posts a stark reminder of the glory that made them possible.
But until the seventh inning of Friday’s home opener against Ball State, some of the Golden Flashes were squirming.
With great expectations after last year’s 47-victory season ended with the school’s first appearance in the College World Series, the start to the 2013 season hadn’t gone well. The Golden Flashes played their first 21 games on the road during a six-week span and went 8-13.
Junior second baseman Derek Toadvine said they not only longed to sleep in their own beds, but hated getting up in the mornings before their hotel’s free continental breakfast ended. Then there was the erratic baseball.
“Some days we’ve had really good pitching and haven’t showed up at the plate,” Toadvine said. “Or we’ll get a little bit of both but don’t show up in the field. Or we’ve swung the bats well, but our pitching hasn’t done well. We just need to put together all parts of our game and we’ll be fine.”
After newcomer Taylor Williams pitched his second complete game of the season and the Flashes rallied from a 2-0 deficit with two outs in the bottom of the seventh for a 6-2 victory over Ball State, KSU coach Scott Stricklin hoped his team had found a spark.
“Great teams find ways to win. I don’t think we’re a great team yet, but we’re developing,” Stricklin said. “That win can maybe give us some momentum and get us going.”
Before KSU broke through with a six-run seventh, Stricklin said he wasn’t nervous. Williams admitted he was. Toadvine said, “Everyone was a little on edge.”
The CWS logo almost seemed to be taunting the Flashes to get it going, both in the game and for the season.
Stricklin admitted the pressure of 2012 is there. The Flashes became the first Mid-American Conference team to reach the CWS since Eastern Michigan in 1976. In their run, they put together a nation’s best 21-game winning streak. But six players were drafted and it might be taking time for their replacements to jell.
“We lost a lot of key players,” Stricklin said. “We played a tough schedule. And you’ve got that factor [of the College World Series] hanging over your head a little bit. Plus we’ve got a target on our backs. We understand that. But you’ve got to deal with expectations.”
Statistically, Stricklin can find comfort. The Golden Flashes entered MAC play with a record below .500 for the 13th time in the past 17 seasons. They have still earned the MAC regular-season title in five of the previous 10 years and won the league tournament title in six of the last 10. Going into today’s 1 p.m. doubleheader against Ball State, they are 3-1 in the league.
Asked if he takes solace in last year’s slow start, Stricklin sighed. He seemed to need a few more victories for solace to kick in.
“No, as coaches we hate slow starts,” he said. “You can’t really describe it or understand it or figure it out. But it was April 25 last year when we started our streak. We were up and down early in the year and I didn’t feel like we were playing particularly well.
“[This] is similar. Today when you look at the seventh, eighth and ninth inning, that’s as good as we can play. Now we’ve got to put nine innings together. That’s what last year’s team did as we moved along. We’ve got a good, talented, hard-working group and I feel like it’s going to come along. But sometimes it’s a little slow going.”
The addition of right-hander Williams should help. A native of Camas, Wash., Williams attended Washington State as a freshman and committed to KSU last fall, when he was at Mount Hood Community College. Williams played summer ball in New Hampshire with Toadvine, catcher David Lyon (now in the pros) and pitcher Tyler Skulina.
Williams breaks the mold of a Stricklin recruit, with the coach preferring to pursue players in Northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania. With the victory Friday, Williams improved to 5-1, the best record among the Flashes, with a 2.07 ERA.
“We didn’t know what we had,” Stricklin said. “In the fall he was pretty good, he was talented. We knew he’d be in our rotation, but we didn’t see this. He’s been dominant. He’s turned himself into a team leader really quickly.”
Williams said he feels like he’s “been along for the ride” as the Flashes enjoy the publicity of last year’s trip to Omaha.
“Obviously we have really high expectations coming off a year like that,” he said. “I soak in last year’s team, how well they did. It’s been cool to step in.”
Stricklin probably doesn’t dare think where he’d be without Williams. As all the Golden Flashes are learning, making history is one thing, following it is another.