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For the second straight season, the Mid-American Conference didn't send its best overall baseball team to the NCAA Tournament.
The Golden Flashes (37-18, 18-6 MAC) dominated the MAC throughout the regular season once again in 2017, only to see a promising campaign come to a premature close in the MAC Tournament. This year No. 5 seed Ohio University beat the top-seeded Flashes twice on the way to the claiming the MAC tourney crown. Last year No. 7 seed Western Michigan rode ace pitcher Keegan Akin's arm to the title, defeating Kent State 12-7 in a championship game that was 10-0 when Akin exited after throwing six shutout innings.
The Flashes have won 81 games and two regular season MAC titles in the past two years, but have been forced to watch the NCAA Tournament like an also-ran.
"It's disappointing in all honesty. It's disappointing that really two years now you have such a great team and you can't get out of the MAC Tournament," said coach Jeff Duncan, who has not led KSU to the NCAA Tournament since his rookie season in 2014. "I thought this was another team that could have made noise in the regional, but we were not able to finish the deal."
The Bobcats, like the 2016 Broncos, went two-and-out in regional play. In fact no MAC team has won an NCAA Tournament contest since Kent State shocked the collegiate baseball nation by advancing to the 2012 College World Series with victories over national powers Kentucky, Purdue, Oregon and No. 1 Florida.
The Flashes seemed to have the top-end pitching and overall depth necessary to compete with the nation's elite in the postseason the past two years, but never earned the opportunity.
"I don't want to make any excuses. Ohio just played better. They played better than us in all facets. They beat us, both games," said Duncan. "We didn't get it done, and I take ownership of that."
Quiet bats have been the main culprit in the past two MAC Tournaments, which eats at Duncan -- a former Major League outfielder. Kent State's top four hitters -- senior Luke Burch (3-of-16) and juniors Mason Mamarella (1-of-10), Dylan Rosa (2-of-11) and Tim DalPorto (0-for-11) -- all batted over .300 for the season but combined to bat .125 at the MAC tourney.
"We've got to find our offense in that tournament," said Duncan. "We're trying to figure it out. When the tournament starts I just feel like we have a lot of tension, for whatever reason. We have a target on our back all year long inside the league, but the target gets bigger when the tournament starts and we haven't handled that well the last couple of years. We seem to press, and we've got to get over that.
"I need to do a better job of getting our offense prepared for that tournament. I'm trying, but that's not good enough."
The elimination of Buffalo's program after the 2017 season, accompanied by Akron's decision to cut baseball following the 2015 campaign, leaves the MAC with 10 baseball teams and led to a change in the tournament format beginning next year. The top six teams will qualify for the 2018 MAC Tournament, and the top two squads will receive first-round byes.
"The old format is not favorable for the No. 1 seed. It's set up for the Cinderella," said Duncan. "The last time a one seed made it out of the tournament was 2012 when Kent State went to (the College World Series), and they had to make a comeback in the championship game. The new format could benefit us quite a bit. But the bottom line is, we didn't get it done the last two years."
Now the Flashes are anxiously awaiting next week's 2017 Major League Baseball Draft, to see who they'll have available for next season.
One key player who will not return is Burch, who finished off a stellar three-year run at Kent State by batting a team-high .350 with 53 runs and 78 hits in 54 games. Burch started his collegiate career at Ashland, then walked on at KSU and hit .360 in 2015 and .357 in 2016. He earned First Team All-MAC honors as an outfielder the past two seasons after overcoming a knee injury that sidelined him for the second half of 2015.
"Burch worked so hard. He's extremely competitive and has high goals. He's a believer," said Duncan. "Just to see his growth over the last three years in this program is unbelievable. He's putting himself on the map to be a pretty good draft pick. He's battled some adversity in his career with the knee injury. He had some feelers out to be drafted last year and he made the decision to come back, which I thought was really neat too. I think he made himself even more marketable by coming back, made himself even a bigger name. He's very dynamic. He plays really fast, he's got good bat speed and good hand-eye coordination, a tremendous arm, and he runs very well."
The Flashes could also potentially lose several juniors to the pro ranks. Hard-throwing right-hander Zach Willeman (6-5, 4.91 ERA) and power hitter Dylan Rosa (.314), who led the team in homers (14) and RBI (50), have excellent chances to be drafted according to Duncan. Other juniors that have received interest from pro scouts include DalPorto (catcher, .304), Mamarella (centerfield, .330, 18 steals), left-handed ace Eli Kraus (8-3, 2.69) and relievers Robert Zeigler (2-0, 2.56) and Patrick Dayton (2-2, 2.77).
"We could have four or five guys drafted. That's a good thing for the program," said Duncan. "We recruit guys that want to win championships and play at the next level, because those guys are driven. These guys won a championship this year, and now they may get a chance to live a childhood dream by playing professional baseball. We'll be fine next year no matter what happens next week."
Kent State will return 2017 MAC Pitcher of the Year Joey Murray, who went 6-1 with a 1.80 ERA in 2017. The right-hander from Dublin Coffman High School allowed just 55 hits and 32 walks while striking out 110 in 75 innings during his sophomore season.
"I feel really strong about our pitching staff again next year with Joe Murray, and with or without Kraus," said Duncan. "We'll also have (junior lefty Jared) Skolnicki (5-2, 3.71) coming back. We've got a really good core of guys coming back who will contribute next year. I also feel like we have a really good recruiting class coming in. I'm excited about this group -- very athletic, with some really good arms.
"There's a lot to feel good about with this program. The future is bright. We've just got to get the (MAC) Tournament piece figured out."