KENT: The framed newspaper article from baseball coach Scott Stricklin’s first news conference at Kent State hangs in the guest bedroom where his parents always sleep.
On Tuesday, he practically remembered the Beacon Journal headline verbatim, as though he’s looked at it more than a few times.
It read, “Next Level Prime Goal for KSU’s New Coach.”
After eight years, the next level has finally arrived.
From the day he was hired, Stricklin vowed he was going to take the Golden Flashes to the College World Series.
“I don’t want to maintain anything here. I want to build,” Stricklin said on July 19, 2004. “There really is no feeling like stepping on that field in Omaha.”
An improbable Golden Flashes team is two victories away from that amazing feeling.
On Saturday night, KSU (44-17) puts its 20-game winning streak — best in the nation — on the line against Oregon in the first game of a best-of-three Super Regional at PK Park in Eugene, Ore. The winner advances to the College World Series June 15-26 at Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.
“When I first got here, it was a little bit of a pipe dream,” Stricklin confessed after practice Tuesday.
Stricklin, 40, a former Golden Flashes catcher and Athens native, has taken Kent State to five NCAA regionals, but the school had never won a title until last weekend. That included a 7-6, 21-inning victory over Kentucky on Friday that was the second-longest game in NCAA Tournament history.
Indians play-by-play announcer Tom Hamilton, whose son Nick is KSU’s designated hitter, is still shaking his head over that one. The Indians gave Hamilton time off to attend the Gary, Ind., regional and he will fly to Eugene from St. Louis Friday.
“I have never seen anything like that, probably never will again,” Hamilton said by telephone Wednesday from Detroit. “It’s arguably the greatest baseball game I’ve ever seen at any level.”
KSU’s regional success against second-seeded Kentucky of the Southeastern Conference and top-seeded Purdue, the runaway Big Ten winner, was all the more amazing because Stricklin’s formula is to win with homegrown talent.
Of the 34 players on the roster, 27 are from Ohio, the rest from Pennsylvania. There is only one junior college product, Ryan Bores from Strongsville, who attended Cuyahoga Community College.
“We could go to Arizona and Texas and California and try to get some kids that the University of Texas and Cal State Fullerton didn’t want,” Stricklin said. “We’d rather get the kids right here in our backyard. The talent pool in Northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania is really good.”
It almost seemed to gnaw at Stricklin that Kentucky center fielder Austin Cousino of Dublin Coffman High School got away.
“We recruited him,” Stricklin said. “That’s what we’re trying to do, keep some of those kids from going to the SEC and the ACC.
“That’s the challenge we have; we call them logos. ‘Are you going to go play for a logo? Or are you going to come here and win and develop and graduate?’ ”
Adding to that challenge is the fact that no baseball player at Kent State gets a full scholarship. Stricklin has to sell recruits on the tradition of Kent State, which has had 87 players taken in the Major League Baseball Draft, 28 under Stricklin, including six members of the 2012 team. He also has the lure of associate head coach/pitching coach Mike Birkbeck, a former major-leaguer who is in his 15th season at KSU. Birkbeck was offered the job when Stricklin was hired, but preferred to remain in his current post. He has produced 25 draftees, including David Starn, Michael Clark and Bores this week.
“Mike Birkbeck is the finest pitching coach in the country,” Stricklin said. “The way he communicates with our guys, the way they respect him and the way they listen to him … when kids get here they get better and that is key.”
Stricklin thought last year’s team might be the one to reach the next level. Six players joined the professional ranks. Four were drafted in the top 10 rounds, including left-hander Andrew Chafin, selected in the first round by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
But after beating Texas 7-5 in the Austin regional, the Longhorns came back to claim 9-3 and 5-0 victories over the Golden Flashes.
“Kent State gave us all we wanted,” Texas shortstop Brandon Loy said in video posted on YouTube after the regional’s final game.
Stricklin was an assistant on USA Baseball’s 2011 collegiate national team last summer and heard more of the same from three Longhorns.
“When they first introduced themselves to me, they said, ‘Coach, you guys are good,’ ” Stricklin said. “It made me feel so good because nationally recruited 5-star players and us, a little ragtag group from Ohio and western Pennsylvania, and we were just as good as they were.”
Senior shortstop Jimmy Rider of Peters Township, Pa., said this KSU team might be the closest he’s been on.
He said some of that comes from always being considered an underdog. He said the Golden Flashes also thrive with a chip on their shoulder because they weren’t offered scholarships by a “logo” school.
“In high school, you get big dreams of going south,” Rider said. “When that doesn’t happen, it’s, ‘Work hard to prove ’em wrong.’
“When I was first starting out in high school, Kent State wouldn’t have even been on my radar. But it’s been perfect, I couldn’t have asked for any better.”
Stricklin said that message is getting out, especially when Kent State defeated Purdue on Saturday in a game shown on the Big Ten Network. Next season, he’ll have his first recruit from Michigan.
He strives to reach the national stage, but Stricklin doesn’t care to widen his recruiting boundaries.
“We’re going to stay right here in our little bubble we’ve created for ourselves,” he said.
Considering Stricklin’s success, there seems nothing wrong with thinking small.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.