By Allen Moff | Staff writer
Whoever decided to send the Kent State baseball team west instead of south to start the 2014 season is a hero right now in the eyes of first-year coach Jeff Duncan and his squad.
While virtually the entire East Coast was getting pounded by one of the worst winter storms in history, the Golden Flashes spent Wednesday and Thursday practicing at Arizona State University under gorgeous sunny skies as they prepare for today's season-opener at Arizona.
"It's gonna be 85 today," chuckled Duncan Thursday morning. "It was good to get out here early. We haven't had a chance to get outside at all (during the preseason)."
The weather isn't all that has Duncan smiling these days.
Leading a perennial national powerhouse program in your first opportunity as a head coach would make anyone giddy, even a former Major League outfielder like Duncan.
"It's awesome. I'm unbelievably excited about this opportunity," said Duncan, a former assistant at Purdue, who took over the KSU program after Scott Stricklin accepted the top job at Georgia following the 2013 season.
"Kent's got great tradition, a great program. Then to start your head coaching career against Arizona, who won the national title two years ago in the same World Series Kent State was in, I'm extremely excited."
Duncan sees tremendous potential in his Flashes, who won 36 games and the Mid-American Conference regular season title last year after making a scintillating run to the College World Series in 2012.
"I like my team. I really do," said Duncan. "It's a good group of guys, close-knit. I think team chemistry wins -- obviously you've gotta have a little bit of talent -- but the team chemistry's been outstanding. That's something you have to worry about when there's a change at the top, but it's been great."
Three new weekend starters will take the mound against the Wildcats (34-21 in 2013).
Brian Clark, a junior lefty from Stow who compiled a 1.38 ERA as a reliever last year, will start tonight. He'll be followed on Saturday by sophomore right-hander Nick Jensen-Clagg, a midweek starter last season.
Duncan hasn't decided on his Sunday starter, but prized freshmen Andy Ravel (RH) and Eric Lauer (LH) are in the mix along with senior lefty Michael Clark.
"Brian Clark has had some success coming out of the bullpen. He's a tremendous competitor with good size (6-foot-3, 225)," said Duncan. "Ravel has got a chance to be special. I really like him. He can dominate college baseball cause he's got guts and three pitches he can throw for a strike. He's gonna have a heck of a future here along with Lauer, who is highly touted and has the big left arm."
Lauer was recently named the No. 14 freshman prospect in the country by Baseball America, while Ravel was predicted to be named MAC Freshman of the Year by College Sports Madness.
Leaders in the bullpen are junior right-handers Eric Dorsch and Josh Pierce.
"Dorsch on the back end is one of the top prospects in the country, a 6-9 right-hander who gets it up to 95 (mph), and he's a competitor," said Duncan. "Then you've got Josh Pierce, who has a bulldog mentality, throws strikes and competes."
Duncan also likes what he sees offensively, with a lineup that includes returning starters Sawyer Polen (Jr., SS), Alex Miklos (Jr., CF), T.J. Sutton (Sr., RF), Zarley Zalewski (So., 1B/3B/DH) and junior catcher Tommy Monnot.
"Zarley is probably our best all-around hitter," said Duncan. "He just has a knack for putting the barrel on the ball. T.J. Sutton is a tremendous leader, a grinder-type guy."
New faces in the lineup will include senior first baseman Cody Koch, sophomore second baseman Justin Wagler, senior left fielder Jon Wilson (transfer from Maryland) and freshman Curtis Olvey (3B).
"Cody Koch hasn't really had an opportunity in the past, but he's got tremendous power," said Duncan. "There have been a lot of guys that have stood out (during the preseason). We've got a chance to be good offensively."
The Flashes started 1-9 last year while facing a rigorous non-league schedule, and could face some tough times once again early on this season. But Duncan is confident that his squad will round into shape as the year progresses.
"There's some inexperience, so we might take a lump or two early," he said. "But I feel really good about these guys."
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