Kent State baseball looks to continue success
Coming off the best single season in Kent State baseball’s history, in which the team went 45-17, coach Scott Stricklin penned his name on a contract extension that will keep him managing the Flashes through the 2016-17 school year.
Collecting four MAC tournament titles that lead to four NCAA regional births, Stricklin has a long list of accolades as coach of the Flashes.
“I am just very proud to represent the university,” Stricklin said. “I went to school here and loved it here as a player and as a student. I’m very proud that I get to be the head baseball coach here with such a great staff and have so many great players from the state of Ohio on our roster. We’re just very proud of our accomplishments and we’re looking forward to continuing what we’ve done in the past.”
The two-time MAC coach of the year has coached 22 athletes to the next level in the MLB First-Year Player Draft. Most recently, Stricklin coached left-handed ace pitcher Andrew Chafin to be the 43rd pick in the compensatory first round of the 2011 MLB First-Year Player Draft.
But Stricklin and his staff, who have remained together the entire eight years he has been coach, preach a more serious matter than just baseball. Earning back-to-back perfect 1,000 scores the last two seasons in the NCAA’s Academic Performance Rate report, Sticklin and his staff put school first. From Spring 2004 until Fall 2009, the team GPA was raised from 2.35 to a 3.2.
The jump led to the best team GPA in program history.
“This is my alma mater. This is where I graduated and received my degree,” Stricklin said. “My wife went to school here, so this is a big part of our lives. What our players do in the classroom is very important to all of us as a coaching staff. We push our guys to make sure that they try to receive the best grade that they can get. We’ve been very fortunate to have a great group of kids over the years.”
While Stricklin knows he can’t do this job alone, associate head coach and pitching coach Mike Birkbeck also signed an extension to keep him on the bench through the 2014-15 season. Sticklin is very pleased to have the man who he considers the “best pitching coach in the country” working alongside him an extended period.
“I’m very biased when I say this because I get to see what he does every day, but I think (Birckbeck’s) the best pitching coach in the country,” Stricklin said. “What he’s been able to do and just establish and maintain what we’ve done here for the last 15 years, he has been a major part of that. That’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me as a head coach is that he is my pitching coach. He’s very knowledgeable about the game. He communicates well with the pitchers. He works very hard and takes a lot of pride with what he does with those guys.”
With a winning percentage of .648 (267-145 in seven seasons) the combo is coming off a record-setting 45-win season last year in which the team finished 26th in the nation, according to the College Baseball Newspaper.
Going where only one other Kent State baseball team has ever gone, the Flashes topped North Texas in the first round before falling to No. 5 ranked host Texas in the regional finals.
The run got Stricklin named the 2011 American Baseball Coaches Association Midwest Coach of the Year and earned him a spot on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team as an assistant coach.
“Our rally cry since the last few years has been winning championships for the seniors,” Stricklin said. “The last three senior classes that we’ve graduated have all won four championships and that senior class is trying to get their fourth championship ring.”
Making things a little more difficult this year, the team has lost some big names. Last year’s No. 1 pitcher, Chafin, who registered 105 strikeouts last year, has moved on through the draft and currently pitches for the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Missoula Osprey in the Pioneer Rookie League.
Last year’s third baseman, Travis Shaw, was drafted in the ninth round of 2011 First-Year Player Draft by the Boston Red Sox. Shaw currently plays third base for the Red Sox’s Class-A team, the Greenville Drive.
The Flashes added some firepower to the rotation with the addition of Tyler Skulina, who transferred from the University of Virginia last year. Coming in at 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, Skulina’s fastball has clocked in at 95 mph. He will be seeing his first collegiate action this year in the starting rotation after sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules.
“He’s a tremendous prospect and a hard worker, and he has made huge strides in a calendar year since he’s been here,” Stricklin said. “We expect him to be in our starting rotation. This coming weekend at Winthrop, he’s going to pitch one of those games and start in our starting rotation. He’s got high expectations for himself, and we have them for him as well.”
With the season about to get underway this weekend, Stricklin has one crucial position battle going on at third base, which will play a big role come the start of conference play.
“The lineup is set for the most part except for third base,” Stricklin said. “We have two guys really battling it out at third base: Sawyer Polen, he’s a freshman, and (senior) Nick Hamilton. Both those guys are going to split some time early on, and hopefully someone wins the job by the time we get to conference.”
Where Stricklin expects to be deepest is in the outfield position, which he considers to be the “best it’s ever been.”
“We have six guys in the outfield that can really play and really run,” Stricklin said. “The right field position, we’ve got some guys fighting for playing time and guys who are going to get some really good opportunities to win the job.”
The Flashes’ baseball team will kickoff the 2012 season Friday at Rock Hill Coca-Cola Classic at Winthrop where the team will play the NCAA’s No. 10 Georgia Tech at 2 p.m.