By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
You could say 2012 was a dream year for the Kent State University Intercollegiate Athletics Program, but that really wouldn’t be accurate.
That’s because you really couldn’t even dream this stuff up.
A first-ever trip to the College World Series for head coach Scott Stricklin’s Golden Flashes baseball team, complete with a thrilling victory over top-ranked Florida. A school record fifth-place finish by Herb Page’s perennial national power men’s golf team at the NCAA Championship, including a sudden-death playoff victory over Florida State that vaulted them into match play. Then last but certainly not least, a record-shattering season by the much-maligned Kent State football program that no one besides head coach Darrell Hazell and his players saw coming, featuring a school-record 11 wins and the program’s first championship and bowl berth in 40 years.
All among the premier achievements in the history of KSU athletics. All in one season.
“I don’t think anyone could have imagined this at the beginning of the year,” said Flashes Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen. “Obviously we knew we were gonna be really good at golf and really good at baseball; football there’s always that uncertainty, because we had never done it before.
“But then to see golf take it to the level they took it to and getting into the final eight was outstanding. Then I flew right from that to baseball, and that run … wow. The Omaha experience really united the whole Kent State alumni group and our fan group.
“Then in football we just continued to win and win each week.”
SWINGING TO NEW HEIGHTS
The fun started last spring in typical fashion, with Stricklin’s baseball team and Page’s golf squad dominating MAC foes.
The Flashes golfers claimed their fourth straight conference title by blitzing the field at the 2012 MAC Championship with a 40-shot victory in Sugar Grove, Ill. Sophomore Corey Connors shot 7-under to earn medalist honors, while junior Kevin Miller (2nd, 5-under) and senior Mackenzie Hughes (4th, 1-over) also finished among the top four.
Kent State advanced to the NCAA Central Regional, and qualified for the NCAA Championship for the third consecutive season by placing third with a three-round total of 8-under par in Ann Arbor, Mich. Miller led the way by finishing 11th at 3-under 210, cracking the top 20 at the regional tournament for the third straight year, while teammates Connors (13th, 2-under), Hughes (19th, even-par) and sophomore Taylor Pendrith (19th, even-par) were also among the top 20.
The Flashes entered the NCAA Championship at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Cal., as one of only 10 teams in the country to have finished in the top 20 the past two seasons. Kent State stood in 13th after the first of three rounds used to narrow the 30-team field to eight for match play, then moved into a tie for the crucial eighth spot after round two.
After three rounds the Flashes found themselves still tied for eighth thanks in major part to a late birdie by Connors, who fired a final-round 2-under 69, setting up a sudden-death one-hole playoff with Florida State for the eighth and final match-play spot. A birdie by sophomore Kyle Kmiecik lifted the Golden Flashes to a one-stroke victory over the Seminoles, vaulting them into the match-play quarterfinals against No. 2 Alabama.
Kmiecik, who had the only birdie among the 10 players, hit a 5-iron on the 199-yard 18th hole at Riviera to 12 feet and nailed the putt.
“That’s a shot we’ll remember forever,” said Page.
Connors won his match 4 & 2 and Hughes earned a half-point, but a narrow 2 & 1 loss by Pendrith helped the Crimson Tide secure a 3-1-1 triumph.
The Flashes wound up in a tie for fifth at the NCAA Championships, edging their previous best-ever finish of sixth in 2008. Connors finished the 54 holes of regulation at 1-over and tied for fourth individually, the best-ever showing at the NCAA Championship by a KSU golfer. Kmiecik (37th) and Hughes (50th) were also among the top 50.
“Just a great year. A very resilient group of young men,” said Page. “To get this far is a great accomplishment, and I’m very proud of them. We’re gonna keep battling til we win the whole thing.”
IMPROBABLE RUN TO OMAHA
Kent State’s golf team secured its record-setting finish on June 1, the same day the Flashes baseball team won the wildest game in its storied history.
Stricklin’s troops had advanced to the NCAA regional tournament by dominating MAC competition for the fourth consecutive season. They won the MAC East Division and earned the top seed for the MAC Tournament by going 24-3 in league play, closing with 14 straight wins, then waltzed to the tourney title with four consecutive victories.
Senior ace David Starn became the first two-time MAC Tournament MVP after earning a pair of victories. He blanked Buffalo for eight innings in the opener, then came out of the bullpen three days later to toss three more scoreless frames and lift Kent State past Central Michigan 3-1 in the championship game. Sophomore T.J. Sutton doubled home the first two runs and scored the third against the Chippewas.
Kent State advanced to the Gary Regional as the No. 3 seed, and was pitted against second-seeded Kentucky in its opener.
That matchup, played on June 1, took a whopping 21 innings, 182 at-bats, 678 pitches and some six hours and 37 minutes to decide. The Wildcats tied it twice with single runs in the ninth and 18th innings, but the Flashes pushed across a run in the 21st on an RBI triple to center by Alex Miklos to win the second-longest game in NCAA Tournament history 7-6.
“That might not have been the longest game in college baseball history, but it was certainly the best baseball game in college baseball history,” Stricklin said. “There were so many twists and turns. The game was just unbelievable.”
The next day, junior Ryan Bores tossed a complete-game to lift Kent State over host and top-seed Purdue 7-3 and into the regional final for the second straight year. Senior shortstop Jimmy Rider delivered the big blow, a three-run double during KSU’s five-run second inning.
A rematch with the Wildcats materialized in the regional final, and the Flashes captured another thriller to earn the first regional title in program history. Junior centerfielder Evan Campbell broke a scoreless tie with a three-run homer in the eighth, then made a leaping catch at the wall in deep center to preserve Kent State’s 3-2 victory.
Next came the Flashes’ first-ever trip to the Super Regionals, where they were pitted against host and 10th-ranked Oregon, with the winner of the best-of-3 series advancing to the College World Series.
Campbell once again made a game-saving catch, this one a leaping, turn-around grab in deep left-center that closed out a 7-6 triumph in the opener. The Ducks fought back to earn a 3-2 win in the second matchup, setting up a winner-take-all Game 3 showdown in Eugene.
The Ducks scored two runs in the eighth to tie the contest 2-2, but a bloop single down the left-field line by Rider scored Derek Toadvine from second in the bottom of the ninth to give Kent State a 3-2 victory and its first-ever berth in the College World Series.
The Flashes were heading to Omaha, college baseball’s promised land.
“To take a team to Omaha … I wish I could find the words to describe for you, but I can’t,” said Stricklin, whose Flashes became the first MAC team to reach the CWS in four decades.
Thousands of Kent State fans made the trip to Nebraska to watch their beloved squad, which had become a national media darling after earning so many heart-stopping victories on its way to the College World Series.
The Flashes opened the CWS against Big East Tournament champion Arkansas, and fell 8-1. Kent State was then pitted against No. 1 ranked Florida in an elimination game. Rider, senior catcher David Lyon, and junior first baseman George Roberts ripped three consecutive RBI singles to help Kent State take a 4-0 lead after two innings, then freshman reliever Josh Pierce escaped a pair of bases-loaded jams in the ninth as KSU held on for a heart-stopping 5-4 victory that knocked the No. 1-ranked Gators out of the tournament.
The Flashes’ dream season ended three days later with a 4-1 loss to two-time defending CWS champion South Carolina, but not before they had collected a school-record 47 wins (47-20) and captured the hearts of fans throughout the country.
“I’m very proud of my team and Kent State University, just an unbelievable year,” said Stricklin. “It was a season that no one expected. In our best years in the past, Omaha was really a pipe dream. It’s just a testament to our kids, how tough they are and how bad they wanted this. I think we made a statement that we belonged here.”
Little did Flashes fans know, but perhaps the most shocking season of all was still to come.
FOOTBALL FUTILITY SUDDENLY ENDS
Kent State entered the 2012 football season coming off a 5-7 campaign in Hazell’s first season the previous fall, which included a 1-6 start.
The season started innocently enough, with a 41-21 win over Towson in the opener that featured junior speedster Dri Archer’s 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, followed by a 47-14 loss at Kentucky.
Next came a tough road test at Buffalo, which Kent State passed with flying colors as a dominant defensive effort keyed a 23-7 triumph. But the turning point of the season was about to come.
After leading Ball State for most of the game, a late rally by the Cardinals put the Flashes’ backs to the wall. They trailed 43-42 with just 2:05 remaining when senior quarterback Spencer Keith led the offense onto the field some 94 yards from paydirt with no timeouts remaining.
Keith’s status as the starting quarterback was in question heading into the contest, and although he’d enjoyed his best game of the season by far — tossing his first three TD passes of the season — he’d also just thrown an interception minutes earlier that set up Ball State’s go-ahead touchdown.
After Keith’s first pass of the drive was nearly picked off, there was little reason for Flashes fans to believe they were about to witness anything but just another tough early-season loss that would trigger another losing season.
Instead, Keith engineered a stunning drive that finally changed the Flashes’ fortunes — on that day, throughout the rest of the season, and possibly beyond.
Keith converted a third-and-10 pass to senior wideout Matthew Hurdle, then hit Hurdle once again on a do-or-die fourth-and-10 play to advance the ball near midfield. A 20-yard pass to freshman Josh Boyle and a bulldozing 20-yard run by sophomore tailback Trayion Durham took the ball to the BSU 5, setting up senior Freddy Cortez’s chip-shot 25-yard field goal with six seconds left that gave Kent State a stunning 45-43 victory.
Suddenly, the most beaten-down college football program in the country over the past four decades found the key element to winning that had been missing all along.
The Flashes rolled over host Eastern Michigan the following week 41-14, as Archer returned his third kickoff for a touchdown. Kent State then earned its first non-conference road win since 2007, a convincing 31-17 triumph at Army.
Homecoming Saturday followed, and the Flashes found themselves in a jam trailing by seven late in the fourth quarter. But they reeled off 24 straight points in the final 16 minutes to win 41-24, earning their sixth win and bowl eligibility while offering more proof of their legitimacy.
If there were any doubters remaining, they were gone a week later.
Kent State travelled to New Jersey — Hazell’s home state — to take on No. 18 Rutgers, the unbeaten leader of the Big East. The Flashes were double-digit underdogs and given little chance against a Scarlet Knights squad that featured one of the nation’s toughest run defenses.
But Kent State stunned Rutgers with three quick scores to grab a 21-3 lead, and kept the advantage in double-figures the rest of the way. The Flashes rolled up 224 yard rushing and forced seven turnovers while earning a 35-23 triumph, their first-ever win against a top-25 team after 22 straight losses.
Before Rutgers, KSU fans were thinking winning season and bowl game. Afterward, they were thinking championship.
Kent State came out slow the following week against backyard rival Akron, falling behind 14-0 after one quarter, but bounced back by blanking the Zips 21-0 in the second half to earn a 35-24 victory — overcoming a 14-point deficit for the first time since 2003.
The Flashes then needed a victory at Miami to give themselves an opportunity to clinch the MAC East Division championship in the next game at Bowling Green, and they took care of business quickly. Durham scored on a 10-yard run just over three minutes into the game, and Archer added TD runs of 35 and 43 yards just minutes later as Kent State opened up a 21-0 lead and cruised to a 48-32 victory.
Up next, the Flashes’ biggest football game in 40 years.
Kent State, which had just entered the AP Top 25 poll for the first time since 1973 at No. 25, travelled to Bowling Green to meet the Falcons with the MAC East Division title on the line. The Flashes entered the showdown riding a school-record eight-game winning streak, while the Falcons had won six straight and were unbeaten at home.
The game lived up to its billing, and then some. Highlight-reel touchdown runs of 79 and 74 yards by Archer were immediately answered each time by touchdown passes of 72 and 81 yards, respectively, from BG quarterback Matt Schilz to wideout Chris Gallon. The second Gallon TD catch tied the contest at 24 with 14:11 remaining.
Minutes later, Kent State star junior defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix tipped a pass that was picked off by junior end Richard Gray at the BG 20-yard line. Four plays later, Keith faked an inside handoff to Archer, took off to the left and dove into the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown — Kent State’s biggest score in 40 years.
Junior strong safety Luke Wollet iced it by picking off a fourth-and-long pass in his end zone with just 21 seconds to play as the Flashes clinched the MAC East Division championship and a berth in the MAC Championship Game. They also earned a school-record 10th win, and clinched their first title of any kind and first bowl berth since 1972.
“What a wonderful win for this football program and all the people who have ever put on football uniforms, even everyone who has ever put on a Kent State sweatshirt,” said Hazell. “To think of what our team has accomplished here this season and the end of last season is mind-boggling to me.”
Kent State closed the regular season the following week with a methodical 28-6 home win over Ohio, becoming the first team to go 8-0 in the MAC East Division since Ben Roethlisberger-led Miami in 2003. Moments after that game ended, attention quickly turned to their MAC Championship Game opponent: Defending champion Northern Illinois.
There was no question in anyone’s mind that the MAC’s top two teams were meeting for the title in Detroit. The Flashes entered the championship contest ranked 18th in the country and riding a school-record 10-game winning streak, while the 19th-ranked Huskies had won 11 in a row, including eight of their last nine by double-digits.
Kent State turned a pair of early special teams blunders by Northern Illinois into 10 quick points, but the Huskies quickly recovered. They thoroughly dominated the middle two quarters behind star quarterback Jordan Lynch, outscoring KSU 24-3 during that stretch, and held a seemingly comfortable 27-13 lead when the Flashes took over at their own 4 with 7:46 remaining in regulation.
Kent State suddenly sprung to life when Keith hooked up with a streaking Archer on a 60-yard pass to the NIU 22. Keith later scored on a 5-yard run, trimming the deficit to 27-20 at the 4:53 mark of the fourth quarter.
Moments later, destiny appeared to be firmly on the Flashes’ side when Lynch and tailback Akeem Daniels fumbled a handoff exchange. Kent State junior end Zack Hitchens scooped up the loose pigskin and sprinted 22 yards for the game-tying score.
In a mere 15 seconds, a game that seemed to be over was all tied up.
Northern Illinois answered with a touchdown on its following drive, but the Flashes responded. Facing a third-and-seven, Keith looked to his left then scrambled right and hit junior tight end Tim Erjavec in the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown that knotted the contest at 34 with 44 seconds left, forcing overtime.
Kent State opened the first overtime by marching to the NIU 5, but a fumble on an end-around play on third-and-short forced the Flashes to settle for a 33-yard Cortez field goal. The Huskies also had to try a field goal on their initial OT possession, and Mathew Sims’ 40-yarder barely snuck inside the left upright to force a second extra session.
Northern Illinois had the ball first and Lynch quickly scored on a 2-yard run, but this time the Flashes could not answer as a desperation fourth-down pass by Keith from the NIU 9 was intercepted in the end zone.
Despite the gut-wrenching defeat, Kent State still finished the season with a school-record 11 wins and earned its first bowl berth since 1972. The Flashes (11-2) will battle Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State (9-3) on Jan. 6 at the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
“This year the stars aligned, everything worked out for us,” said Hazell, who accepted a six-year, $12 million dollar offer to coach Purdue on Dec. 5, and was replaced as KSU head coach by former Flashes star defensive back Paul Haynes two weeks later. “We had a lot of good players, and we made plays when we had to. When you think about how far this team has come in the past two seasons, it’s truly incredible. This was a phenomenal year.”
A phenomenal year indeed for the Flashes athletics program as a whole, one that will be incredibly tough to top.
“The year was just outstanding,” said Nielsen. “It’s obviously setting high expectations for future years, but that’s what we’re all about.”