By Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal sports columnist
OMAHA, Neb.: Kent State baseball coach Scott Stricklin had barely had time to look back. The Golden Flashes’ College World Series run had ended, and his team was about to head to the airport with a 6-3 record in the NCAA Tournament,
But he didn’t need to think too long about his most satisfying moment in a history-making season.
“The win to get us here. In Oregon, winning on their home field in the bottom of the ninth in walk-off fashion, that’s pretty special,” Stricklin said Thursday at TD Ameritrade Park after KSU (47-20) was eliminated in a 4-1 loss to South Carolina.
He was referring to a 3-2 victory over Oregon in the final of the best-of-three super regional in Eugene. It was decided when shortstop Jimmy Rider’s bloop to left field shockingly fell in for a single to score Derek Toadvine.
That triumph sent KSU to its first College World Series. A former Golden Flashes catcher, Stricklin had stated that goal when he was hired in 2004. But through a career that has also taken him to Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt, Stricklin began to appreciate how much it meant to reach Omaha.
“Watch the video of South Carolina winning against Oklahoma to get to Omaha,” Stricklin said. “They’re the two-time defending national champions, and they dog-piled like they just won the national championship.
“Just getting to Omaha is that special, it means that much. We walked around for four days just smiling and shaking our heads, saying ‘We can’t believe we’re here.’ ”
But Stricklin had another favorite moment, a 5-4 CWS victory over top-ranked Florida on Monday.
“Winning against Florida was huge for us, proved we did belong here,” Stricklin said.
In fact, only an 8-1 loss to Arkansas in the CWS debut disappointed Stricklin.
“[Against South Carolina] we made a great statement. We were two baserunners and one swing away from tying that game,” he said. “I think that’s a testament to how good of a baseball team we are.”
Stricklin believes the Golden Flashes earned respect for the way they conducted themselves during the tournament.
“Every place we’ve been, when we leave I think people understand we’re a great program. You don’t see our kids throwing their helmets and doing things they shouldn’t be doing,” Stricklin said. “Our kids play hard. We’ve got the highest GPA here, our [Academic Progress Rate] is in the top in the country. We’re doing things the right way with home-grown kids. When you do things the right way, it usually pays off.”
Pitcher Tyler Skulina of Walsh Jesuit and first baseman George Roberts of Summerhill, Pa., thought players would be inspired by their first trip to Omaha.
“I believe it will motivate us to get back here and push us, make us better ballplayers,” Roberts said.
“We have a lot of guys returning for next year and with all this experience under their belts, it will help them out a lot,” Skulina said. “We have a really good class coming in. That’s going to motivate them to want to beat us out for spots and to play, so that’s going to make our team better.”
What’s going on
Stricklin said friends back in Kent told him he has no idea how the team’s success was embraced there.
“I don’t think we really understand it,” Stricklin said. “I’ve gotten a lot of text messages and emails with videos of people having parties at their house and at the restaurants downtown in Kent. I keep hearing, ‘You’re not going to believe it when you see it.’ It’s really special.”
Studying the benefits
Kent State director of athletics Joel Nielsen said the university hopes to get a measurement on the “total value” of the CWS run.
“There’s a tangible number we plan to seek in terms of television exposure, media exposure,” Nielsen said. “Outside of that you’re talking merchandising and the energy we’ve seen throughout Northeast Ohio and Ohio in general for this team, the outreach. Especially getting a lot of shout-outs from northern teams.”
Nielsen said his wife and three daughters contributed greatly to KSU’s merchandise take.
“I think my family has one of each, at least from the women’s side,” he said of the wide range of T-shirts. “There’s so many keepsakes. It’s great exposure for us and it’s wonderful for these kids.”
South Carolina third baseman LB Dantzler’s third-inning, two-run home run over the bullpen in right field was the second home run given up by KSU pitchers in the NCAA Tournament. The other came against Arkansas in the CWS opener, by catcher Jake Wise, a solo shot in the second inning off David Starn. … KSU senior shortstop Jimmy Rider finished with a .349 average in the NCAA Tournament with four doubles, 10 runs scored and nine RBI. In the CWS, he doubled, homered, drove in two runs and scored four. … The loss Thursday snapped a string of 12 consecutive victories in Skulina’s starts, which tied for third longest in the nation this season. He had won nine consecutive decisions, dating to a loss at New Mexico State on March 11. Skulina joined Vanderbilt’s Grayson Garvin in 2011 as the only pitchers to strike out nine batters in a CWS game in the past two years. … Roberts and Sawyer Polen were the only two KSU batters to work three-ball counts against South Carolina’s ace Michael Roth, who threw a two-hit complete game.
Kent State will honor the baseball team Thursday at the Kent Student Center Ballroom. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m., and the presentation will begin at 7 p.m.
The event is free. Attendees will receive a free T-shirt, including other giveaways, and will have the opportunity for a meet-and-greet and signing with members of the baseball team before and after the event. Refreshments will be served at the event, which also will feature video highlights from the championship season.
The school is encouraging everyone to wear blue and gold.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.