Four Of A Kind: No. 27 Kent State Baseball Team Knocks Off Central Michigan In MAC Title Game To Earn Fourth Straight Tournament Title
Golden Flashes advance to NCAA Championship Regionals for a fourth year in a row and 12th time in program history.
AVON, Ohio – Twenty years ago, the seeds of a legacy were planted when the 1992 Kent State baseball team defeated Central Michigan, 3-1, in the Mid-American Conference Tournament Championship Game.
Two decades later, the scoreboard read Kent State 3, Central Michigan 1, again. The team with 'KENT STATE' printed across its jerseys sprinted to the pitcher's mound to dive into tangled mess of joy known as the dogpile. Another chapter of a legacy grown to dynastic proportions was complete.
The No. 27-ranked Kent State baseball team earned its fourth straight MAC Tournament title and advanced to the 2012 NCAA Championship Regionals for the fourth year in a row and 12th time in program history with a 3-1 victory over Central Michigan in front of a legion of Blue & Gold faithful fans in the championship game Saturday (May 26) at All Pro Freight Stadium.
"I can't say enough about our five seniors that we have and what they did," said eighth-year head coach and 2012 MAC Coach of the Year Scott Stricklin. "It doesn't get old. It's a great team accomplishment. I'm really proud of Kent State and our university."
Ranked No. 27 in the nation according to Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, the No. 1-seeded Golden Flashes (41-17) ran their winning streak to a nation-long 17 games courtesy of the championship triumph over the No. 3-seeded Chippewas (34-29), marking Kent State's 10th MAC Tournament crown in program history. The Flashes have won 32 of their last 39 games – including 21 of their last 23 – and are the only program in MAC history to win back-to-back-to-back-to-back conference tournament crowns. Kent State won its fifth MAC Tournament title under Stricklin, who lettered three seasons as a catcher at Kent State, earning All-MAC honors in 1992 and '93. He guided Kent State to a wire-to-wire MAC Regular Season Championship – the squad's fourth regular season title under his watch – before leading the Golden Flashes to a perfect 4-0 finish in the double elimination conference tournament.
The 2012 NCAA Championships begin with the Regionals next weekend (June 1-4). Regional sites will be announced Sunday (May 27) at www.ncaa.com/cws at 3:30 p.m. The 64-team field, with first-round regional pairings and site assignments, will be revealed in a live, half-hour telecast Monday (May 28) on ESPNU at noon. The Golden Flashes will hold a watch party at the Water Street Tavern in downtown Kent beginning at 11:30 a.m., and all fans of the blue & gold are welcome to attend.
Senior southpaw ace David Starn (Hudson, Ohio) became the first two-time MAC Tournament MVP in conference history, tossing three scoreless relief innings with three strikeouts to improve to 10-3 on the season and earn the distinction of being the MAC's best player in tournament play for a second straight season. The 2012 MAC Pitcher of the Year and 2012 Louisville Slugger Third Team Pre-Season All-America selection became Kent State's new all-time leader in innings pitched with 323.0 career frames under his belt, breaking the previous mark of 320.2 held by Dirk Hayhurst (2000-03). Kent State's all-time leader in career wins and strikeouts, Starn improved to 28-9 with 332 strikeouts. The championship game relief work marked Starn's second appearance on the bump in the 2012 MAC Tournament. He shut down No. 8-seeded Buffalo over eight frames in the tournament opener, limiting the Bulls to two hits as the Flashes rolled to a 9-0 win.
"I was pretty tired but I thought I'd be able to come in," said Starn. "Coach Stricklin told me (senior right-handed pitcher) Ryan Mace (Tallmadge, Ohio) was starting, and then I would probably come in for a couple innings. What he wanted me to do was go down there and act like it was a normal start. He gave me extra time to warm up and everything, so I treated it like it was a normal start, like it was the first inning."
Central Michigan advanced to the MAC Championship Game after winning four straight elimination games and took an early lead in the title game when redshirt freshman second baseman Pat MacKenzie hit a leadoff single to left and scored two outs later on a base hit to left by senior left fielder hitter William Arnold to grab a 1-0 lead in the top of the third inning.
The Chippewas threatened again in the ensuing frame when senior right fielder Sam Russell coaxed a two-out walk, and redshirt freshman catcher Tyler Huntey followed with a single. Mace, who tossed the first four frames for Kent State and struck out four, dug deep, though, striking out Central Michigan senior third baseman Eric Wrozek to put out the fire.
Kent State used Mace's momentum to grab the lead from the Chippewas in the home half of the fourth. Junior first baseman and 2012 MAC Player of the Year George Roberts (Summerhill, Pa.) got things going with a one-out single through the left side. Redshirt junior third baseman Nick Hamilton (Avon Lake, Ohio) followed by cracking a double down the left field line, setting the stage for sophomore right fielder T.J. Sutton (Uniontown, Ohio) to drive both Roberts and Hamilton home with a ground-rule double down the right field line.
"Playing in a tournament like this, the biggest thing is the energy," said Sutton. "Early on, I don't think we had it. They definitely had a lot of momentum coming in. We came out a little flat, and Coach Stricklin brought it up before we hit the back-to-back doubles to take the lead."
Kent State tacked on another insurance run in the sixth when Sutton was hit by a pitch, advanced to third on a ground-rule double down the right field line by freshman third baseman Sawyer Polen (Wooster, Ohio) and scored on an RBI groundout by freshman left fielder Alex Miklos (Grove City, Pa.).
Starn shut down Central Michigan's bats in the sixth and seventh, but gave up a leadoff single to Arnold and walked senior designated hitter Nate Theunissen to begin the eighth. He gave way to redshirt freshman right-handed relief pitcher Josh Pierce (Avon, Ohio), who rose to the challenge in front of his hometown fans by striking out junior first baseman Jordan Adams for the first out, then getting Russell to ground into a rally-killing 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
"It's a situation I replayed in my head five or six times last night," said Pierce. "I couldn't go to sleep because I was thinking so much about it. That was the exact situation I wanted to be in, being back in my home town in front of friends and family."
Pierce came back out in the ninth to get Huntey to ground out back to the mound and junior pinch hitter Reid Rooney to fly out to left. After surrendering a two-out single to MacKenzie, Pierce turned the ball over to freshman Second Team All-MAC left-handed relief pitcher Brian Clark (Munroe Falls, Ohio), who got Hall to ground out to second to clinch the championship.
Starn was joined on the All-MAC Tournament Team by Sutton, who batted a team-best .500 with seven hits – including two doubles – to go along with four RBIs and three runs scored, and Roberts, who hit .421 with a team-high eight hits – including three doubles and a grand slam – to go along with a team-high seven RBIs.