After spending the entire year at the top of the Mid-American Conference East Division standings, the Golden Flashes watched their hopes of winning a regular-season conference title slip away over the weekend in a doubleheader split with Miami.
That split allowed Bowling Green to pass Kent State (33-19, 18-8 MAC) in the standings on the season's final day. While losing the regular-season title is a disappointment, all it means is the Golden Flashes must re-embrace the season's original objective.
"Going into the year, our goal was to win the MAC Tournament and advance to the regionals," said Kent State coach Rick Rembielak. "Then all of a sudden, we put ourselves in position to go for the overall championship. That wasn't exactly the team goal."
Once the goals were adjusted to include winning the regular-season championship, the failure to secure that title turned into a painful letdown _ one Rembielak hopes won't derail the Flashes when they open the MAC Tournament at Bowling Green's Stellar Field Wednesday morning. Kent State, the defending champion and No. 3 seed, will face Ball State in the first game of the double-elimination tournament.
"How much of a letdown will (losing the regular-season title) be?" said Rembielak. "We were in the lead in the division all year and it was very, very disappointing to lose that last game."
Rembielak held a team meeting Monday afternoon to gauge the psyche of his players.
"We didn't talk about it at all on the bus ride home from Miami," said Rembielak. "I know they are disappointed to have a chance to win a championship go right down to the last game of the season and then lose it. In our meeting I want them to understand that it's time to refocus our goals back to winning the MAC Tournament. We can do that, but the biggest question mark for us is going to be momentum. Right now Bowling Green obviously has the most momentum going into the tournament."
Kent State will have several other question marks when it opens tournament play against Ball State Wednesday at 10 a.m. Among those questions _ can the heart of the Golden Flashes' order break out of its end-of-the-year slump, and can the offense find a way to get to Ball State ace Bryan Bullington?
"Bullington is probably a top-10 pick (in the Major League Baseball draft)," said Rembielak. "To tell you what kind of arm he has, on his 113th pitch against us (Apr. 19), he hit 93 miles per hour."
Bullington pitched all nine innings, striking out 10 in a 4-2 victory in his only appearance against Kent State. The Golden Flashes will send their ace, Dirk Hayhurst (6-3, 2.96 ERA), to the hill against Bullington in game one. If Kent State has an advantage, it may be the fact that Hayhurst threw just four innings (78 pitches) during the Flashes' 5-3 loss to Miami Saturday, while Bullington threw 7 2/3 innings (135 pitches) in his last outing, a 4-3 victory over Western Michigan Friday.
Chris White (4-3, 4.30 ERA) will pitch game two for Kent State, followed by Matt Lorenzo (5-2, 5.80 ERA) in game three of the tournament.
"Right now our strength is our pitching, but our hitters are a big question mark," said Rembielak. "We have a couple of guys in the middle of our lineup who are struggling. (Catcher) Pat O'Brien, our four-hole guy, has been struggling at the plate for the last week and a half. It's tough for the guys at the bottom of the order when they see guys in the heart of the order not taking good swings and making good contact. Those are the guys you are leaning on."
Pat O'Brien leads the Golden Flashes with 16 home runs. He is third on the club with a .330 batting average. Third baseman and No. 2 hitter Phil LoCascio is the team's leading hitter at .379, while second baseman and No. 3 hitter Chris Welsch is fourth on the club with a .327 average. The trio of O'Brien, LoCascio and Welsch were a combined 3-for-21 in the season-ending doubleheader split with Miami.
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