What'll they do for an encore?
That's what fans are wondering as the Kent State baseball team prepares to open the 2013 season Friday with a pair of games Friday in North Carolina, fresh off a truly magical season that ended with the program's first-ever trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.
Actually, ninth-year coach Scott Stricklin finds himself wondering as well.
"We certainly like our club. We think we have a lot of talent, we have a lot of experience coming back from last year, and what our team was able to accomplish last year kind of made us set new goals," said Stricklin (314-165, .656 winning percentage), who was rewarded with a six-year contract extension worth $300,000 annually following last year's historic season. "It'll be interesting to see how this team responds, especially with a very challenging early season schedule. We have high expectations as always, and to do what we did last year is obviously a goal. But it's going to be awfully difficult to duplicate."
After capturing their fourth straight MAC Tournament title a year ago, Kent State was placed in the Gary (Ind.) Regional and moved on by defeating Kentucky twice -- including an incredible 7-6, 21-inning marathon triumph -- and host Purdue. The Flashes were then pitted against Oregon in the Super Regional and captured that series 2-1, earning a trip to the College World Series.
They knocked off No. 1 Florida before being eliminated by two-time defending champion South Carolina.
Kent State (47-20 in 2012) returns one starting pitcher, virtually its entire relief corps, and seven position players who started most of last season.
Leading the sizable group of returnees is senior first baseman George Roberts, who was named MAC Player of the Year and Second Team All-American after batting .364 with 23 doubles, eight home runs and 66 RBI in 2012.
"He's gonna hit in the four hole, and he's gotta be our run-producer in the middle of the lineup," said Stricklin. "He's done a nice job defensively, and he's really the most feared hitter in the conference. We're looking forward to seeing him really produce during his senior year."
At second base will be sophomore Sawyer Polen (.278, 4 HR, 31 RBI), who played third base last year.
"He's really athletic, so he can play up the middle," said Stricklin. "He's done a really nice job with that transition (from third to second) and really shored up our middle defense. He's a guy that was a key for us last year."
Switching from second base to shortstop is Derek Toadvine (.244, 8 SB), who replaces Jimmy Rider -- a four-year starter and phenomenal all-around player for Kent State.
"Derek played off and on at shortstop his first two years because we knew this day was coming when Jimmy Rider was gonna graduate," said Strickland. "He's a great athlete, got great baseball instincts, he's a hard worker, and he does all the things that you need your shortstop to do. He's got some big shoes to fill, but I think if anybody can fill them it's Derek Toadvine. He'll be our leadoff hitter."
The Flashes' lone newcomer in the everyday lineup is freshman third baseman Justin Wagler.
"We're gonna start with Justin Wagler, but we've got a couple of other freshman that we like," said Stricklin. "Zarley Zalewski is a guy that's played well and will get some time at third, and we've also got Curtis Olvey that's gonna get some at-bats. He's recovering from a little bit of an injury but he should be back soon."
All three starting outfielders are back: sophomore Alex Miklos (.250) in left field, senior Evan Campbell (.312, 61 R, 7 HR) in center and junior T.J. Sutton (.300) in right. Campbell and Sutton each hit .300 or better a year ago, and Campbell made several phenomenal catches during Kent State's postseason run.
"We've also got two very good athletes who are gonna see some time out there, whether it be pinch running, pinch hitting, or defensive replacements in Jacob Neuschaefer and Troy Summers," said Stricklin. "They're both really good athletes that give us a lot of depth in the outfield. Another guy that's really come on is Cody Koch. This is Cody's third season with us and he's got a chance to have some meaningful at-bats and play quite a bit. He plays first base behind Roberts, which is a tough spot to be in, but he's gonna get some at-bats, maybe play in the outfield, maybe DH. He's been pretty good for us."
The starting DH will be senior Jason Bagoly, who hit .277 while playing in about half of KSU's games a year ago.
"Jason's swung the bat well lately," said Stricklin. "He's trying to build some momentum off where he ended the season last year in Omaha, where he had a great game against Florida. We hope to build off that momentum and hope Jason has a great senior year."
The one glaring position-player void Kent State has to fill is at catcher, where sophomores Tommy Monot and Jeff Revesz have been competing along with Bagoly to replace four-year starter David Lyon.
"The first weekend we're gonna play four games, and what I'm anticipating is splitting time between Monot and Revesz," said Stricklin. "Those two guys have kind of jumped up front of the race. That's what the first 20 games are going to be for, to see whose gonna win that every day job. They both have their strengths and they both have their weaknesses. We'll see who ends up being the guy after the first 20 games and we'll go from there."
The Flashes also lost their top two starting pitchers from a year ago, MAC Pitcher of the Year David Starn and No. 2 starter Ryan Bores. Junior right-hander Tyler Skulina will move up from the No. 3 slot into the ace role this year after going 11-3 with a 3.77 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 1071⁄3 innings a year ago.
"I think starting pitching is a strength of ours," said Stricklin. "Tyler was our Sunday starter last year and brings a lot of experience with him. In the No. 2 hole will be (junior right-hander) Taylor Williams. He's the one junior college player on our roster, and he's gonna come in and try to fill the shoes of Ryan Bores in the two slot. Our No. 3 is (senior right-hander) Casey Wilson. Casey has always been kind of our go-to guy in the bullpen for his first three years, but this year we'd like him to try to be a starter. He's a strike-thrower and has a lot of experience."
Even without Wilson as a reliever Kent State is still loaded with depth in the bullpen.
"I think the bullpen's our biggest strength," said Stricklin. "We've got a ton of experience coming back with (junior LH) Michael Clark, (sophomore LH from Stow) Brian Clark and (sophomore RH) Josh Pierce. Those are three of the main guys from our run from last year at the end of games. We've had two guys step up that pitched last year for us but didn't pitch in key roles in (sophomore RH) Eric Dorsch and (sophomore RH from Streetsboro) Dan Kopcak. We'll have five guys at the end of the game that we can go to at any time."
The Flashes lack a true closer, but that doesn't seem to concern Stricklin.
"It's gonna be closer by committee as we go through these first few games," he said. "We'll see how that all pans out, and hopefully by the time we get into the conference we'll have an established closer."
Before entering the MAC season on March 22 at Northern Illinois, Kent State will face arguably the most difficult non-conference schedule in program history. Following the opening weekend games against UNC Wilmington (39-23 last year) and Virginia Tech (35-21), the Flashes will visit No. 25 San Diego (40-17) and No. 4 Louisville (41-22) along with Charlotte (21-32) and Memphis (31-28).
"We're gonna play hard and compete against really good teams early and try to rack up as many wins as we can to help that RPI out," said Stricklin. "The RPI is huge. We'll need to have some good early season wins against the great teams we're playing to help that RPI, so at the end of the year if we happen to have a bad day at the MAC Tournament it doesn't come back and haunt us."
If the Flashes are able to play themselves into position to make another deep postseason run, Stricklin believes defense will be the key.
"I think how consistently we are defensively is our key to success," said Stricklin. "Last year that was why we were so good, we played clean baseball and didn't make a lot of mistakes defensively. We've got two new guys in key positions at shortstop and catcher, so I think if we can just stay steady there ... Our pitching staff's gonna be really good, and if we make plays behind them we'll have a chance to beat anybody."