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OMAHA, Neb. -- It didn’t take long for the northern infusion to hit Omaha and the College World Series.
Wednesday night, almost two full days before the CWS was set to begin, Stony Brook athletic department officials were seen parading Seawolves mascot “Wolfie” throughout downtown Omaha, sparking a frenzy among local youth.
The Stony Brook and northern love didn’t end there. Many fans in the crowd Thursday for each team’s practice session were decked out in mostly Seawolves gear, but a good portion of fans also were donning the blue and golden of Kent State.
Make absolutely no mistake about it, there will be plenty of fans at this year’s CWS rooting for the traditional powers, such as Arizona, UCLA, Florida State, Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina, but the locals would love nothing more than to see Kent State and Stony Brook meet for the national title in a couple of weeks.
One could throw most of the nation’s audience in that same boat, too.
In most instances such as these programs reaching the CWS, it would be implied that both getting to this point was simply a “Cinderella” story. But that’s a stigma the two coaches would rather not embrace.
After all, both clubs had an extremely tough road to Omaha. The Seawolves had the tough chore of getting past Miami, Central Florida and Missouri State in the Coral Gables Regional before beating LSU in the Baton Rouge Super Regional last weekend, while the Golden Flashes had to best Big Ten champion Purdue and SEC power Kentucky in the Gary Regional before beating Oregon, a national seed, on the road last weekend.
Stony Brook and Kent State aren’t just happy to be here as northern teams. They fully expect to win, and they’re carrying the reputation of an entire region with them.
“The fact that we got here is a testament to our kids and their toughness,” Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. “We showed it is possible to get here [as a northern team], and it’s pretty ironic because of the steam around that argument lately. I think we poked some holes in that argument, and potentially opened the door for some northern schools.”
It’s quite ironic the Seawolves and Flashes reached the CWS. For years, a select number of northern coaches have vehemently argued that weather was a huge disadvantage in developing northern players. And furthermore, they claimed it was increasingly more difficult to keep talented players in the northern half of the country at home to continue their baseball careers.
Both the Seawolves and Flashes also have poked major holes in that theory. Stony Brook has a total of 28 players, with 14 of them hailing from New York, four from California, four from Canada, two from both Pennsylvania and Connecticut, and even one from Florida.
Kent State is equally impressive in finding and developing homegrown talent. Stricklin said he has 27 players hailing from the State of Ohio, seven of them from Western Pennsylvania.
Also telling is that both of these clubs are ultra-talented. Stony Brook had seven players selected in the MLB draft, including athletic outfielder Travis Jankowski, a first-round supplemental pick of the San Diego Padres. Meanwhile, Kent State had six players drafted, the highest being left-handed pitcher David Starn, who went to the Atlanta Braves in the seventh round.
“What we and Stony Brook have been able to do is keep our state’s best players close to home,” Stricklin said. “We’ve developed a toughness in them, a chip on our shoulder mentality. We’ve felt year in and out we’ve had a chance to get here, but I really thought last year’s team was the team that could get here.”
Given the situation, it would be interesting to poll northern coaches about whether they’re rooting for Kent State and Stony Brook. In one sense, coaches in the region have to be ecstatic that programs from their regions reached the CWS for the first time since Maine accomplished the feat in 1986. In another sense, they have to be grumbling. After all, if Stony Brook can do it, who can’t do it, exactly?
That’s a question more northern athletic administrators will continue to ponder, likely sooner rather than later.
The northern infusion in Omaha also has the NCAA Selection Committee on their toes, and wondering just how the schools in those regions should be evaluated from a postseason resume standpoint.
Stony Brook, for instance, suffered some tough losses to good RPI teams earlier in the season, but was dominant throughout America East Conference play. Still, without winning the league’s conference tournament, chances are good the Seawolves wouldn’t have had a chance to get to this point. Kent State likely was in the same situation had it not won the Mid-American Conference tournament.
Don’t look for any brash changes when it comes to the tournament selection process moving forward, but don’t think the Flashes and Seawolves didn’t catch the committee’s attention. At the least, this could be a huge development for schools in the region looking to get the benefit of the doubt at times.
“We’re going to meet in July and sit down and evaluate what our selections were. And during that process, this is something we definitely need to look at,” NCAA Committee Chairman Kyle Kallander said. “It’s easy to lean on one factor or another too much without looking at the challenges some teams in some areas have to face. Trying to think about those things is a healthy exercise.”
Stony Brook and Kent State already are making an impact on Omaha. It’s now likely to spread to the national stage.
* Coaches from all the participating institutions really talked up the idea that college baseball is now a game relying heavily on pitching and defense. For instance, Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said chances are good his team this year wouldn’t have been in Omaha 10 years ago because of the contrasting styles. But now, all coaches acknowledge the game is changing, and for good reasons.
* Stony Brook has garnered a lot of attention from the coaches here in Omaha. Stricklin said he was very pleased to see the Seawolves in another bracket, while UCLA coach John Savage joked about the Seawolves, saying “Wait, you guys aren’t the Yankees?”. SBU coach Matt Senk, of course, cracked a big smile over that comment.
* Florida State coach Mike Martin had the quote of the day, as if anyone is surprised by that. Martin, when asked about the differences between the old Rosenblatt Stadium and the new TD Ameritrade Park (FSU was not in Omaha last season), he summed it up quite nicely: “I started driving a 1949 Ford. Now I’m driving a Denali. This place is phenomenal.”
* There are no huge surprises in terms of starting pitchers in this tournament. However, some might be a little surprised to see Brian Johnson, and not usual No. 1 starter Hudson Randall, starting against South Carolina. Johnson has been fantastic in two starts against the Gamecocks this season. In his first start, he allowed just two runs in six innings, while he allowed just two runs in a complete game performance in the SEC tournament. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks will counter with left-hander Michael Roth, who has had his share of success against the Gators.
* In terms of other starting pitchers, Arizona will throw Kurt Heyer, who threw 10 innings last week against St. John’s, UCLA will start usual No. 1 starter Adam Plutko, Stony Brook will throw crafty Tyler Johnson, Florida State will start fab freshman left-hander Brandon Leidbrandt, Arkansas will throw talented right-hander DJ Baxendale, and Kent State will go with outstanding left-hander David Starn.
* Given Stony Brook starting pitcher Tyler Johnson is a California native, he’s a guy UCLA coach John Savage is familiar with. He summed up Johnson in complimentary fashion: “He’s a warrior. He’ll throw at a high pitch count if he has to, but his stuff stays the same throughout the game. It’s a great story, really, because he’s a Los Angeles guy who wasn’t recruited real high, and now anyone in America would love to have him.”