Turning the Page: Kent State Baseball Looking Forward as 2013 Season Nears
Fourth consecutive Mid-American Conference title. First NCAA Super Regional. First College World Series. Defeated the number one team in the nation. Ranked sixth in the nation. Two All-Americans. One Freshman All-American. Coach of the Year. Assistant Coach of the Year. Most wins in program history.
What a year 2012 was for Kent State baseball.
It would be easy to keep riding the wave of historical success as the 2013 season approaches, but head coach Scott Stricklin views looking ahead and leaving 2012 in the past as one of the early-season difficulties.
"I think the biggest challenge for us is turning the page," Stricklin said. "2012 was a great year for us, but it's over. The biggest challenge any team faces after a great year like that is, 'What have you done for me lately,' and that's where we are right now."
Also challenging the Flashes in the early-going, is a tough opening schedule. The season leads off with four games in Wilmington, N.C., Feb. 15-17, with two games against UNC-Wilmington and two against Virginia Tech.
The spring doesn't get any easier, as Kent State then heads to San Diego, Lousiville, Charlotte and Memphis for weekend series leading up to the home opener against Pittsburgh on March 20.
"Our early season schedule is as tough as it could possibly be," said Stricklin. "It's going to be really challenging."
A Solid Core
Whatever is to be left behind and whatever is to come ahead, the Golden Flashes are ready for it, bolstered at their core by a lauded coaching staff that will embark on their ninth season coaching together. Stricklin was named MAC Coach of the Year, American Baseball Writer's Assocation/Rawlings Mideast Coach of the Year and CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-National Coach of the Year a season ago.
Associate head coach Mike Birkbeck, who begins his 17th season as pitching coach for the Flashes, was named Baseball America's Assistant Coach of the Year this fall.
Scott Daeley's recruiting classes have ranked in the top 25 during his tenure. He has guided Kent State hitters to finish in the top three in the MAC in batting average, runs and on base percentage for the past seven-straight years, and finish in the top three in slugging and fielding percentage six of the last seven seasons.
Through eight seasons together, the Golden Flashes have gone 314-165 under the current coaching staff, averaging 40 wins a season. The team has also had a perfect 1000 Academic Progress Rate the past three years, joining only other 16 other teams with the same recognition. Kent State is the only public institution on that list.
Depth and Experience
On the diamond, the team has some big holes to fill, but Stricklin believes the newcomers are willing to take over those roles. This season's squad also brings back a lot of experience and depth to help the Flashes keep on pace with success.
"I like our team, I like our experience," added Stricklin. "Our starting pitching is going to be very good. Our bullpen is going to be good. We have a lot of experienced hitters. We have two big holes to fill defensively, behind the plate and at short-shop, and we feel good about that."
Kent State loses two big starting pitchers in All-American David Starn, who was drafted in the seventh round of the 2012 MLB First-Year Player Draft, and fellow draftee Ryan Bores. However, righty ace Tyler Skulina returns to lead the rotation after a dominant sophomore season. Skulina has been labeled a pre-season All-American by numerous publications for 2013 and was even ranked as the No. 78 player in the country by College Baseball Daily.
"He pitched in all of our big games," Stricklin said of Skulina. "When you look at all the games he pitched in, the final game of the Regional, final game of the Super Regional, and the elimination game in Omaha… he's pitched in pressure packed games and pitched really well. I think it's a natural progression for him to go into the number one spot."
Joining the team will be transfer Taylor Williams. Williams brings a list of accolades to the Golden Flashes and looks to make a successful jump from a utility player at Mount Hood Community College in Washington to the number two starting pitcher in Kent State's rotation.
"He's a very good athlete, but has a great arm," Stricklin said. "He is very similar to Ryan Bores, maybe a little bit better arm than Ryan Bores, but a lot of command for his fastball and a lot of life on his fastball and throws a lot of strikes. So one and two (in the rotation) we feel really good about."
Rounding out the three-man rotation, making the move from the bullpen to a starting role, will be Casey Wilson.
"Our most reliable guy for the last few years has been Casey Wilson," said Stricklin, "and he is going to be the starter at the beginning of the year in the three hole. He's a strike thrower, he competes, he's a senior, he's been in big games so we know we can trust him, and we know he's going to do a great job there."
A question mark on the roster is who will step in to the rotation for the fourth games of the opening two weekends. Stricklin believes that role will be decided based on who is available and how the previous games played out.
Kent State's relief pitchers will be one of the strongest areas of the team this season. Returners Brian Clark, Michael Clark and Josh Pierce all pitched late-game, big-innings a year ago for the Flashes. Eric Dorsch and Dan Kopcak also stepped up a season ago to prove their worth. Stricklin said the closer role will not be designated to one player, but rather, will be filled by committee. With a mix of righties and lefties, that gives the coaching staff more match-up opportunities.
"We feel like we've got five guys at the back end of the game who could all be closers and all do that job," said Stricklin. "I don't think we have an absolute closer; all those guys could do it. We've talked as a staff that all five of those guys would be closers anywhere else, but they're going to share that responsibility."
To set-up for those guys, Nick Jensen-Clagg, John Birkbeck, Spencer Bryant, Eli Martin and Dan Slavik look to be solid middle-relievers, as well as possibly getting some spot starts when needed. Newcomers Tucker Linder and Aaron Tadian will also compete for time.
Behind the Plate
With David Lyon gone from behind the plate, Kent State loses perhaps its best defensive catcher in program history. Tommy Monnot and Jeff Revesz will split the starting role at that position to start the season. The early games will give them a chance to vie for the permanent starting job.
They are both very good players," Stricklin said. "We feel like they would be starters anywhere else and that's a good luxury to have. They've got huge shoes to fill."
Three Through Six
Most of the Kent State infield returns in 2013, but the loss of All-American record-breaker Jimmy Rider will leave a big hole to be filled. However, Stricklin believes the infield will be as good as they were a year ago defensively. Derek Toadvine will move from second base to shortstop. Toadvine, a junior, has played nearly every game since his freshman year and has the athletic ability and great game instincts to anchor the infield. Sawyer Polen will then make the move from third base to second, adding athleticism up the middle.
Pre-Season All-American and reigning MAC Player of the Year George Roberts will remain at first base and continue to produce from the middle of the lineup. At third, freshman Justin Wagler will get the start.
Stricklin said of Wagler, "We feel like defensively he can be very good. He's got great hands, he's very gifted with his hands, and we feel like he can learn on the job and do very well at third."
Adding even more depth around the horn is Cody Koch. The junior is able to fill-in with his athletic ability and provides experience in the infield.
Seven, Eight, Nine
All three outfield starters remain the same in 2013, with Alex Miklos manning left field, Evan Campbell in center and T.J. Sutton in right. That group makes the outfield one of the most experienced positions on the team, not to mention an area that has the potential to be even better than in 2012.
"Evan's our senior, he's our captain. He's going to hit in the middle of our order and be a big part of our offense, as well as our defense," said Stricklin. "Alex and T.J. have improved, they've gotten better and they had good seasons last year, so we're looking for some increased production from them. We've got a lot of athleticism out there between those three… You can't teach experience, and we've got a lot of that out there."
Filling in the gaps, Jake Neuschaefer and Troy Summers provide great options defensively as well as on the bases. Both will get opportunities early on to try to spread some at-bats around as the season gets underway.
Veterans and newcomers provide a deep bench when it comes to the designator hitter's spot in the lineup. Bagoly served the DH as season ago, and will start the season providing a big bat in the lineup.
"It's his job, he's the senior," Stricklin said. "We want him to win that job, as a senior. But, we've got some really great talent and guys that we feel can be very good."
That talent comes in the form of Olvey, Monnot and Jeff Revesz when they are not starting in the field.
"We've got some really good depth," Stricklin said of the DH position. "Hopefully we can find a guy that's hot and stick with him."
A Lot to Prove
The College World Series may be in the rear view mirror, but the road to Omaha is in the program's sights as they embark on the 2013 season with a reloaded team and veteran leadership in the dugout.
The Golden Flashes are the favorite to win the MAC East Division and the MAC Tournament. After finishing 2012 ranked No. 6 in the nation, they start this season ranked in the 30's in some polls. They know they have a target on their back and have a lot of work to put in to prove that 2012 was no fluke.
More than anything, though, they are just ready to get that pop in the glove and feel that sweet spot on the bat.
"We're anxious to play," said Stricklin. "We're anxious to get back on the field and start a new year and start the 2013 season the way we want to."