Kent State keeps the dream alive
OMAHA, Neb. -- Look who's sticking around at the College World Series.
Kent State, the Cinderella that no one wanted to notice, beat No. 1-seeded Florida 5-4 on a steamy Monday afternoon at TD Ameritrade Park.
And the Golden Flashes get to stay until at least Wednesday, when they face two-time defending national champion South Carolina -- a 2-1 loser Monday night to Arkansas -- in an elimination game.
"We're not a fluke," Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. "We're a really good baseball team. This is the biggest win in school history."
Tell us how you really feel, coach.
Kent State is indeed a good baseball team, loaded with guts and touched by tragedy.
But you don't win 21 straight games in April, May and June -- including a 21-inning regional opener against Kentucky -- solely on guts.
You don't get to Omaha, winning the decisive super-regional game in walk-off fashion at Oregon, without a dugout full of moxie.
And you don't beat Florida, denying the Gators a game-tying run with one out and the bases loaded in the ninth inning, because of good fortune.
"Yeah, we definitely feel like we deserve to be here," Kent State catcher David Lyon said, "and hopefully, we showed that out there today. After Saturday night, we probably left a lot of doubt in people's minds."
The Golden Flashes lost 8-1 on Saturday to Arkansas. Combine that with Stony Brook's quick exit from Bracket 1 after two lopsided defeats, and this CWS looked bleak for first-time visitors.
But then Monday arrived. The intensity inside Kent State's third-base dugout skyrocketed with the temperature outside. Florida pitcher Hudson Randall succumbed to the heat, leaving after one inning, and KSU jumped on flame-throwing Jonathon Crawford out of the bullpen for three runs in the second inning.
Stricklin said his guys were loose.
"There was no tension," the eighth-year coach said. "Our kids were the aggressors. If you were watching that game and had never seen a college baseball game and didn't know any better, we looked awfully good out there.
It seems that all of Omaha has adopted us and is rooting us on.
--Kent State catcher David Lyon
"That's the most important thing that we wanted, as a team and as a program and as a university, to make a statement that we belong here."
While Stony Brook received almost all the pre-CWS Cinderella hype, the crowd on Monday shifted noticeably in favor of the Golden Flashes.
"It seems that all of Omaha has adopted us and is rooting us on," Lyon said.
Kent State delivered the first CWS win for the Mid-American Conference since Eastern Michigan beat Maine in 1976.
No disrespect to Maine, which made the CWS five times in a six-year period in the 1980s when the NCAA stacked one regional with teams from the Northeast, but the Black Bears are not Florida.
These Gators have played in Omaha each of the past three years and lost in the championship series last June.
Even with its two wins over Kentucky in the regional, some doubts existed that Kent State could deny an SEC domination of Bracket 2. The Golden Flashes listened Friday as Arkansas fans chanted "S-E-C, S-E-C," late in the Hogs' win over Kent State.
"Kent State deserves a lot of credit for the way they played today," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said.
There's an "It" factor about Kent State, which counts 21 of its 27 players on the CWS roster from Ohio. The other six are from Pennsylvania. In particular, Stricklin, a Kent State graduate, possesses the look of a rising star in the college game.
He has directed this program to the NCAA postseason in each of the past four seasons. Stricklin may want to stay in northeast Ohio, but programs from the power conferences are sure to covet him soon.
Regardless, his team earned its keep at the CWS.
The Golden Flashes did it during a difficult time for the program. On Thursday, Cheryl McHenry, the mother of backup catcher Jason Bagoly, died unexpectedly in Ohio. Bagoly, a junior, stayed with the team but did not play Saturday. He was on deck when the game ended.
Stricklin beat himself up over it. The coach said he should have played Bagoly early. Bagoly started at designated hitter on Monday. He finished 2-for-3 with a run scored and a sacrifice.
"I think that shows you what kind of kid he is and how tough he is," Stricklin said. "It gave our team a lift. It really did."
Bagoly plans to fly home Tuesday for his mother's funeral. His schedule for the rest of the week remains undetermined. If Bagoly makes it back to Omaha, he'll rejoin a team with support growing rapidly behind its dugout.