KENT — When it comes to Kent State baseball, the faces change each year but the expectations never waver.

The Golden Flashes have been forced to replace their top three starting pitchers and five key hitters from last year's Mid-American Conference Tournament and regular-season championship team, but still enter the 2019 season as a prohibitive favorite to repeat based on depth that's been flashed repeatedly over a four-decade run of success.

Kent State reached 40 wins for the sixth time since 2000 last year, and had just one losing season since 1982.

“This is a program that's got high expectations and is always looking for guys to step up, and if one guy doesn't the next guy will,” said Jeff Duncan, who is 188-95 in five years as KSU's coach. “We've got 13 freshmen, so there's some youth, but we have a lot of returners who have had some success as well that have provided good leadership. There's a lot of energy with this group, and I think we're very athletic. I'm really excited about this team.”

Most teams would be in rebuilding mode after losing five of their top arms. But pitching has been the strength of Kent State's team on nearly an annual basis since the 1980s, and with renowned pitching coach Mike Birkbeck at the controls, nothing is expected to change this spring.

The Flashes will lack a proven staff ace for the first time in several years, but believe they have three reliable starters in senior lefty Connor Wollersheim, junior right-hander John Matthews and senior lefty John Schreiber.

Wollersheim went 5-2 with a 4.02 ERA last year while splitting time as a starter and reliever. Matthews compiled a 2.51 ERA as a key member of the bullpen in 2018, and Schreiber pitched limited innings as a reliever.

Kent State lost all three members of a stellar ‘18 rotation in Joey Murray, Eli Kraus and Jared Skolnicki to the pro ranks, and will also miss two key arms that were expected back. Sophomores Collin Romel (1.45 ERA) and Ryan Lane (3-0, 2.55), who enjoyed solid freshman seasons for the Flashes a year ago, are both out for the year due to arm issues.

“We're comfortable with our rotation,” Duncan said. “Wollersheim and Matthews have pitched well and gotten some big outs for us in the past."

He said he's excited for Schreiber.

"He's paid a lot of dues in this program, has had to deal with a lot of adversity. It's really neat to see him get the ball. He's worked really hard to get to this point.”

Lefty returns

One familiar name returning for the Flashes is Pavin Parks, though fans won’t remember him so much as a pitcher. Parks was drafted in the 24th round by the San Diego Padres after producing stellar offensive numbers last season, but decided to return to KSU in part so he could display more of his skills as a pitcher in 2019. The lefty from Uniontown tossed just five innings last season for KSU.

“You're going to see him on the mound a lot more this year,” Duncan said. “He's developed into our closer.”

Two other Stark County pitchers who will help anchor the KSU bullpen are sophomores Tyler Drabick (North Canton) and Jack Zimmerman (Green). Drabick made 11 appearances last year and compiled a 3.52 ERA, and Zimmerman sported a 2.25 ERA in 19 relief outings.

“Drabick has really come into his own. You're going to see him a lot late in games,” Duncan said. “Zimmerman was very consistent last year. He has a sneaky fastball, can really spin a breaking ball, and he really competes.”

Other pitchers expected to contribute this season include redshirt freshman Peyton Deats, a left-hander who throws in the mid-90s, along with freshman lefty Ryan Kircher and freshman right-hander Luke Albright.

Parks, who batted .285 with seven homers and a team-leading 52 RBI last year, headlines a KSU lineup that can beat opposing pitchers in many different ways.

“There's balance in our lineup — speed up top, speed on the bottom, power in the middle,” Duncan said. “The top and bottom guys can bunt, hit and run, while the middle guys drive the ball. I feel like it's set up to win in multiple ways. You've got to be able to do that in the north, because there are days when it's tough to hit and you’ve just got to find ways to score runs and win. I think this lineup is set up that way.”

Names to watch

Other returnees include 6-foot-3 senior catcher Pete Schuler (.272 batting average last year), who hit .462 with three homers and a triple in the Flashes' three NCAA Regional tournament games last year, along with senior shortstop Josh Hollander (.231), sophomore right fielder Nick Elsen (.353), sophomore left fielder Greg Lewandoski (.272), sophomore third baseman Michael Turner (.280), and junior designated hitter Patrick Ferguson (.261).

Parks played third base last year but will start at second base, and Lewandoski has been moved from the infield to the outfield and Turner will also receive time at catcher.

Kent State has added a pair of instant-impact transfers in junior center fielder Cam Touchette and 6-5 first baseman Alex Ronnebaum.

“Touchette is a speed left-handed hitter who can bunt and is pretty dynamic. Ronnebaum is a big, physical left-handed hitter who has had a great preseason,” Duncan said. “I'm excited to see those guys compete.”

Others in the mix for playing time include senior Kian O'Brien, sophomores Ben Carew and Kevin Dobos, and freshmen Collin Mathews and Grant Vera.

“We have 15 guys that are going to be interchanged in the lineup at the start of the year, then we'll narrow it down as we go,” Duncan said. “There's depth and a lot of athleticism.”

Kent State (40-18 last year) will be tested early and often during the opening months of the 2019 season. The Flashes started with three losses to Dallas Baptist and the road trip also includes games against Coastal Carolina, North Carolina State, West Virginia and UNC Charlotte.

“It's a really tough schedule,” Duncan said. “I'm really looking forward to seeing how our guys handle adversity, because there's going to be some adversity early. We've just got to go play baseball, take one pitch at a time and let the game come to us.”

Kent State's 2019 home debut is set for March 12 against Youngstown State. The Flashes will also host Northwestern March 15-17 before opening MAC play March 22 against visiting Miami.