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By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
MOBILE, Ala. -- On Friday morning, Kent State's 18 seniors and head coach Darrell Hazell walked off the practice field together for the last time.
There were some smiles and snickers as that fact was acknowledged by several Golden Flashes during the final stages of practice at the University of South Alabama, but emotions were held in check after a spirited and well-executed session that thoroughly pleased Hazell.
"I thought the (starters) especially were hitting on all cylinders," said Hazell. "Our guys are ready to go."
More lasts will follow this weekend as the Golden Flashes (11-2) prepare for Sunday's season-ending showdown against Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State (9-3) in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, although the finality of things hasn't completely come into focus quite yet.
"It really kind of hasn't hit me, especially when we're down here, because it's such a hectic schedule that you really don't have time to think about it," said right guard Kent Cleveland, one of 13 senior starters for KSU. "But it's crazy to think I'm about to play the last game of my football career. It's been a long ride.
"I'm not really ready to go, but you know, you've gotta graduate some time."
Senior kicker Freddy Cortez, as always, was all smiles as he raced toward the team huddle that concluded the final practice of a long and memorable record-setting campaign that's stretched into 2013.
"It's been long, but it's been fun," he said. "Being down here getting ready for a bowl game, but knowing it's your last game, it's bittersweet."
Hazell is feeling those same emotions, knowing he's coaching his last game for the program he turned around before departing for his new job at Purdue.
"Right now I'm fine (emotionally); there's just so much going through my head right now. But I'm sure Sunday night will be a little bit different," he said. "Sunday night will be the last time I really spend with these guys who really changed the culture at Kent State."
Led by Hazell and his 18 seniors, the Flashes at long last put the program's losing ways to rest in 2012. They've won a school-record 11 games and captured the Mid-American Conference East Division title before falling to Northern Illinois 44-37 in double-overtime on Nov. 30 in the most thrilling MAC Championship game in history.
Shortly after that difficult setback, Hazell accepted a six-year, $12 million offer to become head coach of the Boilermakers. That news was initially tough for many of the Flashes to take, and while Hazell's departure is obviously still on their minds, little has been said about it lately.
"I haven't heard one breath about it being my last game," said Hazell. "I've heard about it being their last game. I've heard a lot of guys say that, but my name has not been mentioned."
"Everybody knows it, so there's not really much to say," said star junior tackle Roosevelt Nix. "We still love him and he loves us."
Now, Kent State would love nothing more than to finish off its breakout season in style, by claiming the program's first-ever bowl victory in its first postseason appearance in 40 years.
"In my first four years here we won a total of 19 games, so then to have a chance to win 12 this year is unbelievable," said Cleveland. "I've been blessed to be a part of this team this year and to be part of the turnaround. I couldn't ask for a better senior season. We have three seniors (starting) on the (offensive) line, and there's nothing we'd like to do more than to go out with a win. After all we've been through, I don't want to go out losing the last two games of my career.
"We want to be the first team in (school) history to win a bowl game, and leave our mark on the program even more than we have so far."