Scott Stricklin recalls at some point during Kent State's marathon NCAA tournament contest against Kentucky telling his players how being a part of such a game was really fun.
“I paused, and told them, ‘But I've had enough fun for today. Let's win the game,'” Stricklin said. “When you're going through something like that, you want to keep things light.
“When we got to the 20th inning, I told them that this game is something they'll be able to tell their kids about some day, but let's make sure it's a good memory.”
It turned out to be a happy one for the Golden Flashes, who opened the NCAA tournament on June 1 with a 7-6, 21-inning victory against the Wildcats. The game was the second-longest in tournament history, and started Kent State's sweep of the Gary (Ind.) Regional.
Saturday, the Golden Flashes begin play in their first NCAA super regional, taking on Oregon in the Ducks' home park in Eugene, Ore. The best-of-three series will decide one of the eight spots in the College World Series, starting next week at TD Ameritrade Park.
Three other super regionals begin play Saturday, with two-time defending national champion South Carolina facing Oklahoma in Columbia, S.C., top-seeded Florida playing North Carolina State in Gainesville, Fla., and Arkansas, led by former Nebraska coach Dave Van Horn, facing Baylor at Waco, Texas.
The Eugene super regional is intriguing because it will either advance Kent State to Omaha for the first time or Oregon for the first time since the school resurrected its baseball program four seasons ago. The Ducks played in the 1954 CWS but discontinued their program after the 1981 season.
Oregon jumped back into college baseball guns a'blazing. It built a beautiful new ballpark. It hired one of the game's best coaches in George Horton. One season after the first pitch in 2009, the Ducks were in a regional. Two years later, they are two wins from Omaha.
Kent State? The Golden Flashes might not get the attention that some of the other national elite get, but Stricklin has built a program that has made five of the past six NCAA tournaments. Kent State was a win away in 2011 from moving on to the super regionals but lost the last two games to Texas.
Still, that experience has helped mold this team. Stricklin said it might have carried the Golden Flashes through some tough moments in last week's regional, where they posted two wins over Kentucky and one over Purdue.
“The thing I kept reminding our guys was that we were the team that's been here before,” Stricklin said. “None of the other teams had a player that had played in a regional.
“When it got to be 0-0 in the eighth inning of the championship game, I told them again that we were the team with the experience. Even though we were the No. 3 seed, I really thought it was important for our guys to know they were the one with the edge.”
After surviving the marathon with Kentucky, Kent State came back to hand Purdue a 7-3 loss in the second round. That moved the Golden Flashes on to the championship game, where they used Evan Campbell's three-run homer in the top of the eighth inning to carry them to a 3-2 win against Kentucky.
The three wins improved Kent State to 44-17 as it heads to Oregon with a 20-game winning streak, the nation's longest at this point of the season. Two more wins, and the Golden Flashes will be playing in the College World Series.
Stricklin made the trip to Omaha as an assistant at Georgia Tech. He knows what making the CWS can do for a program. In Kent State's case, the value might be multiplied.
“We feel we've established ourselves as a regional power,” he said. “This gives us a chance to show that we can be a national power. It could be a huge step for our program.”
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