BELLEVUE, Neb. – The storyline includes this place, a high school field down the hill from Bellevue East High School where Kent State has been holding light workouts on the days it hasn’t played games.
I’ve asked four Kent State players, separately, if they ever saw themselves in Bellevue, Nebraska in the middle of June — the capital of The Middle of Nowhere to a kid from Northeast Ohio — preparing to play a College World Series game on national TV the next night.
All four laughed and shrugged their shoulders.
“No,” they said.
Hell no, they were thinking.
But they’re really here. Yes, they really did eliminate No. 1 seed Florida on Monday night, earning another practice at Bellevue East and yet another Biggest Game In School History tonight vs. two-time defending national champion South Carolina.
They’ve made it to Omaha, made it to the final five teams in the field at Omaha and get to play under the lights of TD AmeriTrade Park tonight against a team that had won 22 straight NCAA Tournament games before losing to Arkansas Monday night. Kent State gives the ball tonight to Tyler Skulina, who just might be the best No. 3 starting pitcher in the country.
The Flashes have made it this far. There’s a chance they can keep going.
Kent State made it here as one of two surprise, mid-major, Northern-state party crashers. Stony Brook went quickly and quietly, two beatdowns in two games vs. UCLA and Florida State. The Flashes ran into a superior Arkansas team that was on its A-game Saturday, but they didn’t play well. They had one chance to prove they were better than they showed and that they belonged on Monday, and they summoned all kinds of magic and held off Florida, 5-4, leaving the bases full of stunned Gators in the ninth.
That was an official, irrefutable sign that the Flashes had made it. They won a game in the College World Series.
Now, they get South Carolina. And the winner gets Arkansas.
A few minutes after Kent State’s practice on Tuesday, Arkansas got off the bus and walked on to the field at Bellevue East, loaded its gear in the same first base dugout the Flashes had just vacated and started warming up down the same right field line. From where I stood, the Arkansas players looked more like the Philadelphia Phillies than a college team.
That wasn’t lost on the dozen or so kids — kids from the neighborhood, I’m guessing — who had just been at Kent State’s bus collecting autographs and now were getting ready to watch the Razorbacks. A few of them had been offered new, NCAA-logo baseballs by Kent State coach Scott Stricklin at the beginning of practice in exchange for recouping and returning baseballs that had been hit out of the Bellevue East park during batting practice.
Which reminds me of another question I asked a few Kent State players.
Ever had kids waiting on you to sign autographs after baseball practice before?
Hell no, they were thinking.
But they just smiled. It was a sign they’ve made it.
The Flashes were in their last few minutes of practice Tuesday when a car drove past the left field fence and the passenger screamed “Kent State sucks!” before the car sped away, reaching blinding speeds of 42-45 MPH before disappearing out of sight.
Not many heard the scream, and the few players who did seemed to chuckle. Only one or two players turned around.
The screamer probably hadn’t heard of Kent State a week ago. Now, he was getting a cheap laugh out of his buddies for knowing the Flashes were on the field and trying to get their attention.
Getting heckled by some teenager in a Nissan Sentra on a Tuesday afternoon?
A sign they’ve made it.
One of many.