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Archive for June 2011

Kent State University: A Baseball Dynasty

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Yes friends, I have been away for quite a while. The reasons why aren’t important. So rather than bore you with mundane details, I’ll cut right to the song and dance as “Sports From the Korndog Stand” returns!

If I haven’t said so before, I’ll say this now. Baseball has been my favorite sport since childhood. I love everything about the game. As a child I aspired to one day be a professional baseball player, until I realized despite my vast knowledge of the game, I had no talent for playing it. This week a member of family did realize such a dream, which I will get into later on.

I carry my love of baseball wherever I go. So naturally when I began college at Kent State University, I just had to see a game from the college perspective. Once I took my seat for my first Golden Flashes ball game, I took one look at Gene Michael Field and was immediately hooked. Watching the game I knew it would be something I’d enjoy for the rest of my time at the school. Watching the games, chatting with the pitchers who were video taping them from the stands, and learning all about the history and mystique of “Spring Break Dennis” was an experience I knew I’d never forget.

The team was amazing. They produced winning records, division or conference championships, as well as NCAA tournament berths. Then after that, they produced something bigger: professional baseball players. Each year the Flashes had a few players picked during the Major League Baseball amateur draft. Because of this tradition, I rarely ever missed a game in that five year span.

After graduating I was not able to return to Kent and see the baseball team play as often as I wanted to. However, I did continue to follow its progress on the internet. The team’s success continued while I was away, during that time period, due to such success, head coach Rick Rembielak left the school to become the coach at Wake Forest. He was replaced by Kent State alumnus Scott Stricklin.

I finally set foot back on the hollowed grounds of Kent State’s campus in the spring of 2008 when my cousin, outfielder Ben Klafczynski, began playing for the team. The sight was different. The renovations of the field and the area surrounding it which began my senior year at the school were completed. Gene Michael Field became Olga Mural Field at Schoonover Stadium. The bleachers were moved back and a set of ground level seats were inserted behind the backstop. A brick building which housed restrooms, a concession stand, and a clubhouse was built as an attachment to the home dugout. What already was a beautiful sight to my eyes became immortal.

Over the next three years, again I hardly ever missed a game as I supported my family and got to know the new players in person all over again. The game had not changed one bit for me. This was the Kent State baseball I remembered seeing when I was a student. The players may have changed, but the winning continued. The championships continued. The draft picks continued. Tradition continued. And yes, “Spring Break Dennis” was still there.

For some reason I thought this past season would be different than the previous years, however. Coming off a second straight Mid-American Conference tournament championship and NCAA tournament berth, the Golden Flashes lost a number of key players to graduation as well as early departure for Major League Baseball. The returning pitchers were coming off good, but not great seasons. Half of the lineup was comprised
of young, inexperienced players with hardly any college experience. Though the team was in fact picked to win its division, I was somewhat skeptical. What a surprise I was in for.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was unable to listen to many internet broadcasts of Kent State baseball games this season, let alone attend games at Schoonover Stadium. This fact hit harder to me than ever before due to it being my cousin’s senior season with the team. As the season embarked, I was shocked at what I was seeing. The lineup produced as I expected. The veterans were hitting as they should while the inexperienced ones struggled. But the pitching staff was incredible. Led by redshirt sophomore Andrew Chafin, who was returning from Tommy John surgery, the Flashes’ pitching kept them in games while Scott Stricklin toggled through different lineups to form a winning combination.

Once conference play began, the hitters found their strokes while the pitchers continued to dominate. By the time I finally got out to Schoonover Stadium for a game a few revelations dawned on me. For starters, the impressiveness of the pitching staff was not an out-of-nowhere surprise. Starters Kyle Hallock, David Starn, and Ryan Mace and key relievers Justin Gill and Kyle McMillen put up star performances in the previous season’s Mid-American Conference tournament. Given their play at that point this season, it appeared they never looked back either. Other younger pitchers on the roster stepped up their games as well.

Secondly, in the days leading up to my first game of the season I found an article highlighting the new composite bats college baseball was using this season. The new aluminum bats have less bounce effect off the barrel, slowing the speed of the baseball after contact, making it safer for the fielders. It also is keeping the baseball in the ballparks. So not only was pitching quality higher this season, but the change in bats also aided in defensive performance.

Finally, when I took my seat at Schoonover Stadium, I observed all of the banners that were now displayed across the outfield fence. Though I followed the team for the last ten years, I failed to realize it had won a division, conference, or tournament title, or a combination of the three each of those ten years. It was then that I came to realize for all of those years I was witnessing a dynasty.

As the 2011 season continued, so did the Flashes’ dominance. While the pitching staff posted one impressive performance after another, the lineup fed off them. As a result, Kent State won yet another Mid-American Conference title, posting a 45-17 record and a national ranking. The team posted an amazing 2.66 earned run average as well as a stellar .292 batting average. Scott Stricklin and Kyle Hallock were named coach and pitcher of the year respectively. Other players were named to the all-conference team.

After a spectacular regular season, it was no surprise when, despite losing one game, the Flashes went on to win their third consecutive conference tournament and earn a third consecutive automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

The Golden Flashes were named a number three seed for the first time in program history as one of the four teams in the Austin regional of the NCAA tournament’s opening round. The team was named by one preview as a “dark horse” to win, citing its incredible pitching staff as the X-factor.

The team performed as advertised. First by pulling off an extra-inning upset over the second-seeded Texas State Bobcats in a pitcher’s duel, then an even more astounding upset over the top-seeded host Texas Longhorns in a battle between Andrew Chafin and Taylor Jungmann, the teams’ aces respectively and all but guaranteed first round picks in this year’s draft. However, time eventually caught up to the Flashes as Texas survived three straight elimination games with its pitching depth to win the region after defeating the Flashes in two consecutive games to end Kent State’s season.

The remarkable 2011 Kent State season reached its pinnacle over the past few days when the Golden Flashes baseball team produced five more draft picks by Major League Baseball. As expected, Chafin was picked in the first supplemental round on the first night by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Fellow pitchers Kyle McMillen (Chicago White Sox) and Kyle Hallock (Houston Astros) were chosen in the fourth and 10th rounds
respectively. Junior third baseman Travis Shaw was selected by the Boston Red Sox, who initially drafted him out of high school, in the ninth round. Finally, my cousin, Ben Klafczynski, was picked by the Chicago Cubs in the 20th round. He will join former Kent State teammates Chris Carpenter and Greg Rohan in the Cubs farm system.

As an interesting side note, my grandfather was once asked to try out for the Cubs in his youth but had to pass on such an opportunity due to family matters. Now many years later, in somewhat of a divine intervention, the son of his only son gets that opportunity with the same team.

Over the course of the last decade I have witnessed something special in the Kent State baseball program. Many teams have come and gone, but one thing has remained in tact: a winning tradition. As a proud alumnus of the school, I will continue to watch on as the team looks to build on an already strong dynasty.

Written by apokorny

June 10, 2011 at 3:02 pm