Best of Kent 2018: SPORTS

Kent State coach Rob Senderoff reacts as a foul is called against the Flashes in the final seconds of the second half against Southeastern Louisiana at the M.A.C. Center Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017. Kent State lost to Southeastern Louisiana, 70-66. 

Best Sports Moment

First placeKyle Conel pins No. 1 seed Kollin Moore from Ohio State, then beats him again to secure third place at NCAA Championships

Heading into the NCAA Wrestling Championships in Cleveland, not many people were thinking about Kyle Conel. After taking a year off from wrestling, Conel entered the tournament unseeded, just looking for a chance to prove himself.

And he did.

Conel made some noise on the opening night of the tournament as the only wrestler out of 330 to go 3-0 in his matches on the day. But the day after was when he’d shock the wrestling world. In his first match of the day, Conel pinned Kollin Moore from Ohio State, the No. 1 wrestler in his weight class in the country, to become the first unseeded All-American in Kent State history.

Conel lost his next match and won the one after that to set up a rematch with Moore for third place in the nation.

And he won again.

Conel’s finish—from someone who entered the tournament unseeded and didn’t think he’d wrestle ever again just a year prior—was the second-best for a Kent State wrestler of all-time.

 Second place: Kevin Zabo makes a game-winner in the first round of the MAC Tournament against Northern Illinois

The storylines came to the forefront when Huskies guard Eugene German stepped to the free-throw line with 7.4 seconds left. German, who entered the game as the leading scorer in the MAC, hadn’t scored in the second half.

Now, he had a chance to give No. 12 seed Northern Illinois a one-point lead over No. 5 seed Kent State, setting the Huskies up for an epic upset.

German sunk the first free throw, and Kent State called a timeout.

German’s second free throw bounced around the rim and out. The score remained tied at 59 with 7.4 seconds left.

Kent State center Adonis De La Rosa ripped down the rebound and immediately threw an outlet pass to Kevin Zabo. Zabo ran to the opposite three-point line, where he was met by a Northern Illinois defender.

Zabo spun to his left, past another Husky, before taking off for a game-winning left-handed layup.

Zabo fell to the floor as the ball dropped through the net, and he was mobbed by his teammates before he had the chance to regain himself. Zabo didn’t break a straight face through the whole process, and the Flashes booked a ticket to Quicken Loans Arena for a quarterfinals matchup against No. 4 seed Ball State.

“It was a lot of relief, more than anything,” Zabo said. “I was just like, ‘Man, thank God we’re going to Cleveland.’ That’s all these guys in the locker room were trying to do was just get to Cleveland, no matter if it’s an ugly win or what not. At this point in the year, coach (Senderoff) always says, ‘It’s all about the W.’”

Third place: Maddie Holmes makes a penalty kick to beat Ohio in the first round of the MAC Tournament

“Maddie Holmes knew the stakes as she approached the penalty spot in the fourth round of penalty kicks Sunday.

If she made her kick, the Kent State women’s soccer team would beat Ohio and move to the Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinals.

“It’s definitely an awesome feeling,” Holmes said. “But it’s also a really scary feeling. I just kind of go up there and remember it’s just another game playing soccer.”

Holmes rifled the ball past Ohio goalkeeper Erin Beurket, lifting the Flashes to a 4-2 penalty shootout victory.

Holmes whirled around with a smile on her face, and her teammates had already begun to celebrate at midfield.

“That’s an awesome feeling,” Holmes said. “Everybody was there. We knew we had that one in the bag. We just needed to finish it out.” 

Best Coach

First Place – Rob Senderoff

Kent State men’s basketball coach Rob Senderoff finished the 2017-18 season, his seventh with the program, with an overall record of 139-98. Senderoff has one NCAA Tournament appearance after leading the Flashes to the Mid-American Conference title last season.

Throughout the 2017-18 season, questions arose as to whether the Kent State men’s team would be able to replace Jimmy Hall and Deon Edwin. Despite ups and downs during the non-conference season and early parts of MAC play, Senderoff managed to right the ship and lead Kent State to another record above .500, which Senderoff has done in all seven of his years here.

Senderoff has beaten four Power Five opponents in his tenure as Kent State coach, including a 70-60 win at West Virginia in his coaching debut and a 79-78 victory over Oregon State on Dec. 21, 2017.

Second place – Jeff Duncan

Kent State baseball coach Jeff Duncan has had resounding success since taking over the program in 2013, and this season has been no different. Heading into this season, Duncan had a 148-77 overall record, including 72-30 in the MAC. During Duncan’s tenure, the Flashes have swept 10 MAC series and only been swept once.

Duncan’s Flashes are enjoying a 22-10 record, including 9-3 in the MAC, and are currently on a six-game winning streak. Kent State has already beaten three Power Five teams on the road this season: No. 7 Arkansas on March 9, Notre Dame on March 27 and Pitt on April 10.

Third place – Herb Page

Kent State men’s golf coach Herb Page is as close to an institution as they come at Kent State. Page took the mantle as coach of the men’s golf team in 1978, and before that, he lettered in golf, hockey and football as a student-athlete at Kent State between 1970 and 1974.

Since then, the awards and recognition have come in droves. Page has been named the MAC coach of the year 22 times and has been inducted into six Halls of Fame. He has coached over 101 all-conference golfers and 23 all-Americans, including professionals like Ben Curtis and Mackenzie Hughes.

Page has led the Kent State men’s golf team to three top-10 national finishes and NCAA Regional titles in 1993, 2001 and 2010.

 Best Women’s Team

First place – Gymnastics

The Kent State gymnastics team finished its season 8-7, including 3-3 against Mid-American Conference opponents. The team played top quality competition all year long: No. 16 Nebraska, No. 23 Iowa State and No. 2 UCLA at the Masters Classic and No. 18 George Washington at the Kent State Tri-Meet.

Despite a disappointing showing for the team at the MAC Championships for the team as a whole, freshman Abby Fletcher won the individual floor exercise title. The Flashes then moved on to compete at NCAA Regionals in Columbus.

The standout for the Flashes all season was senior Rachel Stypinski. Stypinski finishes her career as a three-time MAC gymnast of the year. Stypinski finished the season competing in just the bars at the NCAA Regionals after suffering an ankle injury during her final home meet.

Second place – Basketball

Coach Todd Starkey’s women’s basketball team finished the season 13-19, including 5-13 in the MAC, overcoming an ugly final stretch of regular season to win a thriller in the first round of the MAC Tournament.

On Dec. 19, 2017, the Flashes beat Robert Morris, 46-31, in their final nonconference game of the season, the third fewest points given up in a game in program history. On March 5, three Flashes scored over 20 points to upset No. 7 Toledo in the first round of the MAC Tournament and book a ticket to Quicken Loans Arena.

Forward Jordan Korinek finished her career with a First Team All-MAC selection, averaging 19.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game on 50.2 percent shooting. Korinek scored over 20 points in 17 games.

Third place – Volleyball

Coach Don Gromala’s volleyball team struggled through one of its worst seasons in program history, finishing the season at 5-22, including 3-13 in the MAC.

Kent State played in one of the most epic matches in recent memory on Oct. 21, 2017, against Northern Illinois. The Flashes lost in straight sets, but the first set ended with the Huskies on top, 43-41. Since the NCAA moved to the system where 25 points wins the set in 2008, only two Division I sets have gone above 40 points.

The bright spot for the Flashes was senior Kelsey Bittinger. Bittinger was selected to the All-MAC First Team for her third straight year after finishing second in the MAC with 3.88 kills per set.

 Best Men’s Team

First Place – Basketball

The Kent State men’s basketball team overcame one of its roughest starts in years to finish the season at a respectable 17-17 (9-9 Mid-American Conference) and was eliminated in the semifinals of the MAC Tournament.

The Flashes finished the nonconference portion of their schedule at 6-7, highlighted by a 79-78 win over the Pac-12’s Oregon State on Dec. 21, 2017. Kent State brought consistent excitement to the M.A.C. Center, as their conference schedules included eight games that were either decided by four points or less or went to overtime. The Flashes were 6-2 in those games.

Two clear highlights of the season were two buzzer-beaters. The first came from sophomore guard Mitch Peterson, who floated a loose ball toward the hoop with 0.2 seconds left to beat Western Michigan on Jan. 16. The second came from Kevin Zabo during the first round of the MAC Tournament against Northern Illinois, a left-handed layup as time expired to send the Flashes to Cleveland. They would go on to lose to eventual champs Buffalo.

Junior guard Jaylin Walker was named to the All-MAC Third Team after averaging 16.6 points per game. Point guard Jalen Avery led the nation with a 5.04 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Second place – Baseball

The Kent State baseball team is currently 22-10 and 9-3 in the MAC, good for first place. The Flashes have made national noise this year, as they have gone on the road to beat three Power Five teams this season already: No. 7 Arkansas on March 9, Notre Dame on March 27 and Pitt on April 10.

The team currently leads the league in batting average (.282), runs allowed per game (4.00) and fielding percentage (.976). Senior outfielders Mason Mamarella (.363) and Nick Kanavas (.351) are fourth and sixth in the MAC in hitting, respectively. First baseman Brad Hamilton leads the team with eight home runs.

A standout on the mound for the Flashes has been Joey Murray. The righty’s 1.11 ERA is best in the conference. He has struck out a whopping 81 batters in 56.2 innings pitched, giving up just 32 hits and 18 walks.

Third place – Football

The Kent State football team survived another tumultuous season that ended with a change at the helm.

The Flashes finished the season 2-10, 1-7 in the MAC. The team’s sole wins came against FCS opponent Howard and Miami (OH). The team finished ranked No. 127 out of 128 teams in passing offense last season.

Coach Paul Haynes’ contract was not renewed, and Sean Lewis was hired as the new coach on Dec. 21, 2017. Ushering in what he refers to as the #FlashFAST era, Lewis’ spring game was highlighted by defensive intensity and a three-way quarterback battle.  

 Best Female Athlete

First place – Rachel Stypinski

Rachel Stypinski finished her Kent State career with her third consecutive Mid-American Conference gymnast of the year honor, as well as earning MAC gymnast of the week five times this season.

Stypinski saved her best for last, scoring career-highs in the all-around (39.575), bars (9.950 in back-to-back meets), beam (9.975), floor (9.975) and vault (9.825 — twice).

Stypinski also finished 24th on bars with a 9.800 at NCAA Regionals in Columbus despite basically competing on one leg. Stypinski suffered a serious ankle injury during the Kent State Tri-Meet, her final home competition, and hadn’t been able to compete in anything since, even missing the MAC Championships.

Second place – Kelsey Bittinger

Kelsey Bittinger completed her Kent State career as an All-MAC First Team selection for the third straight year. She was a four-year letterwinner and a captain for two of her years with the Flashes.

Bittinger finished her senior season second in the MAC in kills per set (3.88). She also finished her career with nine matches with 20 or more kills, 17 matches with 20 or more points, nine matches with 20 or more digs and 47 double-doubles.

Third place – Holly Speers

Senior shortstop Holly Speers is one of the most feared hitters in today’s MAC. Speers currently leads the league in batting average (.469, 45-for-96) and is fourth in home runs with 10. She has 39 RBI on the year and has been walked a staggering 45 times, by far the most in the league. For reference, Central Michigan’s whole team has only walked 61 times this season.

Before this season, Speers was an All-MAC Second Team selection each of the past two seasons. She hit .317 last season and was named to the All-MAC Tournament Team.

Best Male Athlete

First place – Jaylin Walker

Despite a down year shooting, Jaylin Walker made the All-Mid-American Conference Third Team after averaging 16.6 points per game on 38 percent shooting.

Walker’s scoring output was good for seventh in the conference, and he was ninth in free throw shooting (78.8 percent) and fourth in three-point field goals made (84). Walker exploded for 27 points on 7-for-12 three-point shooting during the Flashes’ 78-68 win over Wagon Wheel rivals Akron on Feb. 17.

Walker broke out during last season’s MAC Tournament, averaging 20 points over the four games, including 30 in the championship game, to lead the Flashes to a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Second place – Kyle Conel

Kyle Conel’s unlikely journey from unseeded to all-American was inspirational and well-documented from media sources all around the country.

After taking a year off from wrestling due to personal issues, Conel entered the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland as an afterthought. However, he beat the No. 1 wrestler in the country, Ohio State’s Kollin Moore, twice to secure a third-place finish, Kent State’s highest since Dustin Kilgore.

Because of that year off, Conel will most likely still have two more years of competition.

Third place – Brad Hamilton

Kent State baseball player Brad Hamilton is quickly establishing himself as one of the best power hitters in the MAC.

His eight home runs not only lead Kent State, but are tied for third in the MAC. The son of legendary Cleveland Indians play-by-play announcer Tom Hamilton, Brad is also hitting .303 with four doubles and 24 RBI.