KENT: Finally, the Kent State baseball family is staying close to home.
After traveling to California and Texas the last two years for an NCAA regional, the Golden Flashes will barely have to change time zones after being selected as the No. 3 seed in the regional in Gary, Ind.
Players, coaches, family and fans filled the Water Street Tavern in downtown Kent to watch the selection show, which aired on ESPNU Monday afternoon.
A few rounds of applause were offered as KSU dodged the regionals on the other side of the country, namely Eugene, Ore., and Palo Alto, Calif., before erupting once “Kent State” flashed across the screen for the next state over.
“Gary, Indiana’s not necessarily a vacation destination, but it’s close to home,” said coach Scott Stricklin. “It’s a true regional. You’ve got four teams from the Midwest region. It’s great for our families that they’ll be able to be there.”
Kent State (41-17) will face No. 2-seed Kentucky (43-16) on Friday at noon. Purdue, the top seed, and fourth-seeded Valparaiso complete the field at the regional.
Entering Friday, Kent State carries the nation’s longest winning streak at 17 games and has won 21 of its last 23, including the 3-1 clincher over Central Michigan to secure the Golden Flashes’ fourth consecutive Mid-American Conference Tournament championship.
“No question, we’ve played our best baseball the last five weeks of the year,” Stricklin said. “We’re pitching good, we’re playing good defense, we’re hitting, we’re getting clutch hits. We’re doing everything that good baseball teams need to do and we’re doing it at the right time.”
That hot streak has people in Kent thinking the Golden Flashes — ranked No. 25 in the nation by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper — can play with any team in the country, especially after KSU knocked off Georgia Tech (then ranked No. 9 in the nation) to open the season.
“We can compete with anyone if we play our game,” said senior ace David Starn, who this year became the first two-time MAC Tournament MVP. “We’ve been there before and we know what we have to do to win. And absolutely we’re playing our best baseball. Those are all key factors.”
Friday’s game with Kentucky could be another step for a program trying to shred its “mid-major” label, despite the team’s record over the past few years. Last season, the Golden Flashes tied for the best postseason run in the school’s history (2001) after they beat Texas State and then took the first game of a three-game series against national powerhouse Texas before dropping the next two. They didn’t win the series, but taking the first game opened some eyes. And Stricklin knows it.
‘‘We said this last year when we went to Texas … They might have not known very much about us when we got there, but when we left they knew who we are,” he said.
Winning cures all. And winning, those at KSU know, is the quickest way to get noticed.
“We gotta beat ’em, gotta win,” Starn said, speaking of not just the first game against Kentucky but the potential series with top-seeded Purdue. “I feel like people are just starting to realize who we are and what we’re capable of. We can do some damage.”
Stricklin’s vision for Kent State is to mirror the Wichita State teams of the 1980s and ’90s that broke through the regional and super regional [equivalent to the Sweet 16 in basketball] rounds and made it to the College World Series seven times. Wichita State won the national title in 1989.
Getting past the regional round is the line that needs to be crossed.
“For us to be considered a national team, we’ve got to get to a super regional and contend for Omaha (site of the College World Series),” Stricklin said.
The Golden Flashes will have to go through Kentucky (No. 13 nationally) and its “not overpowering, but consistent” pitching staff, along with the Wildcats’ freshman standout and Dublin, Ohio, native Austin Cousino, whom KSU heavily recruited. Cousino leads the team in batting average (.318) and extra-base hits (29).
Sophomore Derek Toadvine looks at this game as just another chance to put KSU on the map after a “prove-it” season.
“A lot of people thought we’d be pretty weak this year, so the pressure was off a bit,” Toadvine said. “They didn’t know what we could do after losing a top-50 draft pick [pitcher Andrew Chafin, to Arizona]. Now we just have to go out and shock the world again.”
Everyone in a Kent State uniform knows their name doesn’t carry as much weight as a Florida State or UCLA. But the talent is there, they believe. And nothing carries more weight in breaking down stigmas than winning.
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RyanLewisABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.