Best of Kent 2017: SPORTS


Best of Kent Sports

KentWired Staff

More Best of Kent categories: FOOD | DRINK | ENTERTAINMENT + STUDENT LIFE 

FIRST – Basketball

When the men’s basketball team was in the midst of its four game losing skid in early January, the prospects of advancing past the first round of the Mid-American Conference’s postseason tournament looked bleak, especially considering the Flashes committed an average of 18 turnovers during that span.

But something clicked after the first 20 minutes of play in a home game against Miami University on Feb. 14. Trailing the RedHawks — who finished the season last in the MAC East — by five at halftime, senior walk-on Jon Fleming gave his teammates an effective pep talk between halves that coach Rob Senderoff credited with changing the overall trajectory of the season.

“Jon Fleming at halftime, in my opinion, what he said to our guys really changed how they came out in the next game and from that point forward,” Senderoff said Feb. 25. “That to me was a turning point.”

Following Fleming’s momentum-altering speech, Kent State went on to win five of its last six regular season games. The team outlasted Central Michigan University’s dynamic backcourt of Marcus Keene and Braylon Rayson, 116-106, in overtime, which turned out to be the highest-scoring game in MAC tournament history. 

The Flashes then grinded out a close win over University at Buffalo in the quarterfinals. The team used Jaylin Walker’s floater in the lane to sink Ohio University before knocking off No. 1 seeded Akron by five, giving the Flashes their first MAC Tournament title in nine years. 

When all was said and done, Kent State won four postseason games in six days to secure the league’s lone bid to the NCAA Tournament, where the season eventually ended via a 97-80 loss to the University of California, Los Angeles in Sacramento, California.

SECOND – Baseball

In 2016, the Kent State baseball team had one of its best seasons in recent memory. The Flashes have been looking to build on that success this season.

The Flashes are currently riding a six-game winning streak, and will look to build on that momentum in the postseason.

When asked why the team was playing so well, manager Jeff Duncan had a short answer: “All in all, it’s just coming out to the park every day and being ready to play and playing Kent State baseball.”

THIRD – Football

The Kent State football team finished the 2016 season with just three wins, but the Flashes will return with 17 seniors and expect to improve. 

The team beat Central Michigan, Monmouth University and Buffalo. 

Senior quarterback Nick Holley said despite the team’s record this year, they expect to be successful next season.  

“We go into every year expecting to be undefeated,” Holley said.  “We don’t play the game to lose, so we set expectations very high for ourselves.”

FIRST – Basketball

In 2015-2016, the Kent State women’s basketball team stumbled to a 6-23 finish before bowing out in the first round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament. This led to former coach Danielle O’Banion’s exit and the signing of Indiana assistant Todd Starkey as the team’s new coach.

Starkey came into the situation inheriting a team filled with upperclassmen talent, eventually making one of the biggest comebacks in college basketball. The Flashes went 19-13 this past season, a record that was good enough not only for a MAC East title, but also enough to earn a bye to Cleveland State University in the MAC Tournament, where they eventually lost to the University of Toledo.

The Flashes’ season didn’t end there, however, as the team earned a berth in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, where they lost to the University of Michigan.

“I tell my players that every team writes its own story, and obviously, we were able to write an incredible story this year,” Starkey said. “This season will stand on its own as for what we did with this group.”

Larissa Lurken led the team and had a career resurgence under Starkey. The senior finished the year averaging 23.5 points per game, in addition to braking multiple Kent State and national records throughout the season. 

The Flashes’ season standouts were against their two biggest rivals, the University of Akron and Ohio University. The Flashes’ 68-65 win over the Bobcats on Jan. 14 in Athens served as the game that jump-started the season. 

SECOND – Gymnastics

The gymnastics team had an injury-laden season, dampening expectations and team depth.

“Ankles were just a problem with us this year,” coach Brice Biggin said, listing six team members who sustained injuries this season. “I think the injuries held us back, as far as our depth was concerned.”

As setbacks throughout the season occurred, Biggin said the team didn’t perform quite as well as they had initially expected to.

“I think this year was a learning curve for some kids and we suffered a little bit for that,” Biggin said.

Despite missing expectations, the team competed in the NCAA regional competition in April.

THIRD – Volleyball

Don Gromala knows the importance of balancing athletics and academics. Since he took over the volleyball program in 2012, the Flashes received the American Volleyball Coaches Association Team Academic Award four times and the team’s overall grade point average has risen to a 3.5.

Gromala coached four players who were selected as MAC Distinguished Scholar Athletes and 11 who have been named to the Academic All-MAC Team.

And four times, his program achieved a perfect Academic Progress Report score of 1,000 — the NCAA’s method of measuring retention and graduation rates for student athletes — according to its online database. 

“We definitely focus on being a student-athlete, and we applaud them when they do well in classrooms,” Gromala said earlier in the season. “We don’t only celebrate the success on the court, we celebrate the success in the classroom, as well. We’re always constantly in touch with them on how their classes are going.”   

FIRST – Jimmy Hall | Basketball

It’d be difficult not to notice Jimmy Hall’s impact on the Kent State men’s basketball team simply by looking at his career stat line.

Though he only played three seasons with the Flashes, sitting out one year after transferring from Hofstra University in 2013, Hall finished his career as the program’s third leading scorer of 1,683 points — 683 of which were recorded during the 2016-17 campaign.

He finished his senior season averaging 19 points, 10.6 rebounds per game and recorded 23 double-doubles in 36 contests. He was named an All-Mid-American Conference First Team selection for the third consecutive year and also earned a spot on the National Association of Basketball Coaches All-District 14 First Team. 

Hall, whom many consider the catalyst of Kent State’s run to the NCAA Tournament, recorded 118 points in five postseason games this season en route to being the only player in program history to top 1,600 points and 800 rebounds in a career. 

“It means everything to me, my senior season. It’s an unbelievable way, but I would have never imagined it, to go out like this,” Hall said at Kent State’s official Selection Sunday watch party at Water Street Tavern on March 12.  

SECOND – Jaylin Walker | Basketball

Jimmy Hall might have been the face of the men’s basketball team this season, but Jaylin Walker represents the future — one that’s promising given his breakout performances in both the MAC and NCAA Tournaments.  

Walker was second in the team in scoring, averaging 15.8 points per game, and hit 88 three-pointers on the season. But it was his 30 points against the University of Akron in the title game and the 23 he put up on the University of California, Los Angeles that solidified his mark as Kent State’s go-to scorer moving forward. 

“It’s not going to sink in until I lay down, just start thinking about it, like dang, like this really happened,” Walker said after being named the MAC Tournament’s Most Valuable Player on March 11.

THIRD – Nick Holley | Football

Nick Holley is a fifth-year senior quarterback for the football team. He started the 2016 campaign as running back before transitioning to quarterback. He led the Flashes with 12 touchdowns and 920 rushing yards. He added 868 yards and four touchdowns passing. 

Holley’s season highlight came with the 313-yard, four-touchdown performance against Buffalo.

“It was a really big surprise for me,” Holley said. “I didn’t know anything about it, and to get a text message saying I was nominated as a top male athlete is just awesome.  It’s an honor to be in the top three, and it really means a lot to me.” 

FIRST – Larissa Lurken | Basketball

Kent State senior Larissa Lurken came into her senior season at a crossroads. She put together a solid first three years in her time at Kent, as she averaged a little over 11 points in those games. However, that individual success didn’t garner success on the court, as the team only managed to win 11 games in those three years. 

That all changed this past season, however, as the senior not only averaged 23.5 points per game, but she also scored 752 total points in the season, which is a new Kent State record. Lurken scored her 1,000 career-point this season and also set the mark for most three-pointers made in a career at Kent State, which led to her Mid-American Conference Player of the Year title.

“I can’t say enough good things about what Larissa was able to do; she had one of the best seasons in (the) nation,” coach Todd Starkey said. “Just the fact that she was able to break a 35-year-old NCAA record … It’s arguably the best season that any women’s player has had in the history of Kent State. It’s really kind of a storybook season, and I’m so thrilled for her.”

Lurken, a nursing major, also made her mark in the classroom, as she was one of five Flashes to be named Academic All-MAC.

“At the same time, she was also an Academic All-American in nursing at the same time of doing all those things on the court,” Starkey said. “It can’t be overstated enough that she was able to have such an epic season on the court, but also be an Academic All-American in nursing off the court.”

SECOND – Rachel Stypinski | Gymnastics

Rachel Stypinski’s junior season ended at the NCAA regional competition this year, but she plans to push herself further as a senior.

“It’s a reflection of how your entire season went, to even make it to regionals,” she said. “But I do want to make it as a team and continue to nationals. In 2012, Kent made it as a team to nationals and it was incredible.”

She was satisfied with her performance, but is hoping for growth in her senior season.

“I think I did well, but I’m looking forward to next year, being even better in my last year, being more consistent and having more power in routines,” Stypinski said. “Even though it’s an individual sport, you’re still doing it for the team. If there isn’t a good team bond, a season isn’t going to go great.”

THIRD – Kelsey Bittinger | Volleyball

During the past three seasons, Kelsey Bittinger has learned to balance an honors academic workload with the rigors associated with playing Division I volleyball.

On the court, Kent State’s 6-foot outside hitter started all but one match this season and led the team in kills with 412. 

But in the classroom, Bittinger — a senior physics major — maintained a 3.976 cumulative GPA and aced courses such as electromagnetic theory, applications of modern physics and classical mechanics.

“When you have a major that’s applied physics, when you’re in the honors program and you have the GPA that you do, it’s a testament to how hard she works,” coach Don Gromala said earlier in the season. “And she does the same thing on the court. She wants to do everything that she can and she does that for us.”

FIRST – Rob Senderoff | Men’s Basketball

The journey that led Rob Senderoff to his first Mid-American Conference Tournament championship was the typical route most college coaches take. 

Originally an assistant on Kelvin Sampson’s staff at Indiana University Bloomington, Senderoff was linked to the Hoosiers’ phone call scandal involving recruits that ultimately resulted in a 30-month show-cause penalty from the NCAA.

When he left Indiana, though, not many schools were willing to take a chance on him. But former Kent State athletic director Laing Kennedy decided to hire him back as the program’s associate head coach in 2008.

Three years later, he was promoted to head coach by current athletic director Joel Nielsen after Geno Ford left to take over the post at Bradley University. 

Although Senderoff was a part of the NCAA Tournament as a graduate assistant at Miami University in 1997, and went twice as an assistant at Kent State, 2017 marked the first he qualified for it in his six seasons as a head coach.

He waited a long time to make his return to the NCAA Tournament. The long hours he spends in the gym and on the recruiting trail hasn’t been easy for his wife and two young daughters. 

But it’s this type of personal support that made the magical run possible. 

“These guys deserve all the credit,” Senderoff said, pointing to Jimmy Hall, Jaylin Walker and Jon Fleming, following the MAC title game. “But you asked about the personal thing, I mean my family. I was happy for them because this isn’t easy for a family. I just felt happy for them and really grateful to the people at Kent State who gave me this opportunity to lead the program.”

SECOND – Todd Starkey | Women’s Basketball

Thanks to coach Todd Starkey, the Kent State women’s basketball team completed one of the more memorable turnarounds in college basketball this past season.

Starkey — who served as an assistant at the University of Indiana before coming to Kent — led the Flashes to a MAC East title with a 19-13 record.

“I’m excited about the turnaround, and any (coaching award) is really a staff award, and I’m really fortunate to have a great staff,” Starkey said. “I’m honored that anyone would think that, it feels good for sure.”

When asked about how he’s preparing for next season, Starkey was quick to respond.

“Now I’ve got a lot to live up to. Maybe I set the bar too high,” he joked.

THIRD – Kathleen Wiler | Field Hockey

Kathleen Wiler, the only female head coach at Kent State, has shaped the field hockey team into a successful squad.

“It’s such an honor,” Wiler said. “I wouldn’t be able to do it without my staff and the amazing group of young women I get to work with every day.” 

The Flashes had an overall record of 14-7 and a MAC record of 6-0. 

“We repeated as Mid-American Conference regular season champions and tournament champions, and made our third NCAA appearance,” Wiler said. “We would have liked to keep playing in the NCAA tournament, but overall I’m pleased with it.” 

FIRST – Men’s Basketball wins MAC Championship over rival Akron

When it was all over, after he tossed the ball upward in celebration and shared a short, yet triumphant, embrace with his teammates, Jimmy Hall navigated his way to the far end of the court, past a group of stunned University of Akron fans, toward Quicken Loans Arena’s 4-foot high hockey boards that served as the divider separating the court from the stands. 

At the same time, Hall’s mother, wearing a white T-shirt that had “Hall, J.R.” printed across the back, left her seat in the third row, rushed to the boards and held her son while she repeated: “You’re a man. God got you, stand tall.” 

Kent State fans were screaming Hall’s name in excitement, chanting “MVP” and taking photos of him and his mother. In that moment, though, none of that mattered. 

What did, however, was that he was in the company of his mother on the MAC’s largest stage. 

“I can’t even describe it. It’s been a great journey, just blessed to be in this position,” Hall said with a smile during the postgame press conference on March 11. “All my emotions just went when I seen my mom, how much she cares for me, how she comes out to every game.”

The championship run, though, held different meaning for the various members of the Kent State community. For some, it signified an event that faculty, staff and the student body could use to rally around to strengthen their bond. And for others, it meant that the university would once again be represented on a national stage. 

But regardless, whenever the confetti began falling from the rafters of the Quicken Loans Arena shortly after the final horn sounded on that Saturday evening in Cleveland, a euphoric feeling set in for the Kent State faithful in attendance and those who watched the excitement unfold on ESPN-2.

SECOND – Men’s Basketball National Anthem Unity Statement

[Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016 | M.A.C. Center]

Shortly before tipoff of Kent State’s home opener against Mississippi Valley State University Nov. 16, members of the basketball team walked into the stands of the M.A.C. Center in search of fans of different races to bring onto the court for the playing of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

It’s not something that had been done previously at Kent State prior to this season, but because of the current political and social atmosphere, senior Deon Edwin approached coach Rob Senderoff with the idea — a practice that the team did in each of its 16 home games.

“We wanted to make a statement and let everyone know that we’re aware of all the things that are going on in our country and that we wanted to make a stand for unity,” sophomore Jalen Avery said after the Mississippi Valley game. “That was basically our symbol — that we wanted to show unity and treating everybody as one.”

THIRD – Holly Speers sets NCAA record with five consecutive homeruns

“I didn’t know that there was a record to be broken,” sophomore softball player Speers said. “When I found out that I broke the record, it was amazing. It was probably one of the coolest feelings. I couldn’t have done it without the coaching staff and entire team.”

Speers has a 0.313 batting average and a fielding percentage of 0.966. 

“Wow,” Speers said of making the list. “That’s the best word I can find for it. It’s an honor to be nominated.”

More Best of Kent categories: FOOD | DRINK | ENTERTAINMENT + STUDENT LIFE