With Kent State winning in dramatic fashion Monday night to advance to the College World Series, go ahead and score one for the pebble, the slingshot and a really good, almost totally homegrown Northeast Ohio story.
While we’re at it, score another for Stony Brook University out of Long Island, which joins Kent this weekend as a first-time party crasher at the College World Series in Omaha.
And score one very big one for Northern baseball in general. For once, rooting for Yankees doesn’t mean rooting for the Evil Empire.
College baseball certainly exists here in Ohio, the Midwest and in to the Northeast. But it exists in two-paragraph press releases, back pages in the newspaper and small stadiums. A niche audience? Sure, if friends and family of the players can be considered as such. I wrote a bit about this when I wrote on Kent State a couple weeks ago.
I knew then I was covering a very talented, very well-coached and very capable baseball team. Capable of this?
I’d be lying if I even hinted that I really thought so.
Kent State is a longtime MAC power, took Texas to the brink in regional play last year and has operated like a top-level baseball program for a long time. It’s just operated in relative anonymity compared to the buzz a football or basketball program ’round these parts that’s had that much success would create.
Getting as far as this Flashes team has — winning on this stage vs. the quality of opponent it’s seen the last two weekends and under some crazy circumstances — is no small feat. Kent State becomes the first Ohio team to make it to Omaha and the CWS since 1970 and the first MAC team since Eastern Michigan made the title game in 1976. Stony Brook becomes the first New York team to make it to Omaha since St. John’s in 1980.
No Big Ten team has gone to the College World Series since 1984. College baseball is a game for the Sunshine States and the nearby sunshine states.
When Lehigh beats Duke and Norfolk State beats Missouri in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, it’s a big deal and a huge stunner. But that’s the one-and-done nature that makes the basketball tournament such good television. In college baseball, the regionals are played in a four-team, double-elimination format and the Super Regional is a best-of-three series. You don’t just win once and dance on. You fight like crazy to keep winning.
Every team in college basketball starts practice Oct. 15. Some have bigger gyms and bigger Nike contracts, but everybody shoots at the same hoop and the only game that’s outside all year is the first. On an aircraft carrier. And now I’m rambling, but you get the point.
Stony Brook was the No. 4 seed in its own regional, meaning it won a game over the University of Miami (Florida version) on its home field, then survived, then won two of three at LSU to make the CWS. At LSU — in front of 10,620 fans!!! Stony Brook was a Division III program until 12 years ago.
Kent State took down Kentucky (a team ranked No. 1 for a part of this season) in 21 innings to start its regional, then beat host Purdue, then beat Kentucky again. The Flashes went to Oregon and took two of three heart-stopping games from Oregon, the No. 5 national seed, on Oregon’s home field.
When the CWS starts Friday — Stony Brook plays UCLA Friday and Kent State plays Arkansas on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET — it will have these two outsiders against a bunch of baseball bluebloods.
Top-seeded Florida is making its eighth CWS trip and third straight. The Gators play South Carolina, the two-time defending champ and a team that’s defeated Florida and UCLA in the championship series the last two years. Arizona is back for the first time since 2004, but the Wildcats have won three titles in 16 prior appearances.
The 12 SEC schools drew more than 2 million fans to their baseball stadiums this spring. Those people are certifiably crazy, sure, but the weather and the rivalries and traditions allow those programs to build visibility — and recruit accordingly. Kent State goes to Omaha as the only non-SEC team in its Omaha bracket.
Not bad for a roster that has 27 Ohioans and seven players from Western Pennsylvania.
While doing some of this research tonight, I caught the Stony Brook coach on a national radio show. I had to look up his name (Matt Senk) and I wouldn’t know him if I saw him in an elevator, but he’s clearly on Cloud Nine. He gave the host thoughtful answers, and when asked to be realistic about how he saw his team’s chances of winning the regional and flirting with Omaha, he said he saw those goals as “lofty but attainable”
Dream the dream.
What a lesson. What a run — for both Kent State and Stony Brook.
Lookout, Omaha. The Seawolves and the Flashes are coming.