Duncan committed to continue Flashes success


New baseball head coach Jeff Duncan gets ready to hit the ball during a practice drill on Monday, Sept. 23, 2013. Photo by Erin Mclaughlin.

Kevin Battaglia

When former Kent State head baseball coach Scott Stricklin left to accept what he called his “dream job” at the University of Georgia, it seemed as though the Flashes would be without a leader who had as much winning experience as Stricklin.

Stricklin left the Flashes with a 350-188 win-loss record, five regular season conference championships, five conference tournament titles, five NCAA Regional berths, one NCAA Super Regional berth and the Flashes’ only College World Series appearance.

In June, Kent State hired Jeff Duncan to take over a baseball program that garnered plenty of national attention during Stricklin’s tenure.

Duncan comes to Kent State, after four seasons as Purdue’s associate head coach, committed to continue the Flashes’ success and tradition. Under Duncan, the Boilermakers won a regular season conference championship, won a conference tournament championship and were a NCAA Regional host in 2012.

Duncan sat down to answer questions regarding his first year as head coach of the Flashes and the upcoming season.

Question: What played into your decision to become the next head coach of the Kent State baseball program?

Jeff Duncan: It’s got a great tradition for baseball, a great tradition of winning championships, especially in the [Mid-American Conference]. Kent State baseball is for real. It’s won 13 of the last 14 championships in the MAC and a [College World Series] appearance in the last two years. The administration is really, really good and very supportive.

Q: Before interviewing for the baseball head coaching job, what did you know about the program’s success?

JD: I knew a lot just being in the region at Purdue. With Kent State beating us in our own regional [game] in 2012, I knew that the program was for real. I knew Stricklin and struck up a little relationship with him. With Coach [Mike] Birkbeck’s success on the pitching side, it’s become more of a national power. It’s a borderline top-25 baseball program.

Q: How do you and your staff plan to continue the program’s success?

JD: My vision is obviously to have a championship experience. [The coaching staff] is looking to continue that both on and off the field. Academically, we’ve got a goal of 3.0 [grade point average] or higher which is very attainable with the resources that we have here for academics. Athletically, we’re going to continue to win championships and continue the tradition. Socially, our guys are going to be leaders on and off the field. I will continue the culture. I will create a culture as something that’s talked about until it becomes real. Every day we’re trying to motivate these kids to work hard in practice and cultivate that in their minds on a daily basis.

Q: How is the team looking in the offseason?

JD: Pretty good. I think we have some work to do offensively. I’m very intrigued by our offense in getting better and our pitching staff is going to be very solid. We’ve got some nice new components that came in on the mound. I think we’re going to continue that tradition on the mound but now we have to prop up the offense a little bit and develop them. We need to get them to where, if pitching and hitting is equal, we’re going to be really, really good.

Q: Is that how you plan to fill the void in the pitching rotation left by Tyler Skulina and Taylor Williams, who were both selected in the MLB draft in the offseason?

JD: There are some guys. There are some really young arms and also some guys who have come back. One guy is Brian Clark. Clark looked really good last week in inter-squad [games] and probably, most-likely, has a chance to be in the rotation. Josh Pierce, if he’s healthy. He pitched on the World Series team. If we can get him healthy and get him going for this year, that would be great [for the bullpen]. We have depth on the mound.

Q: What type of team do you want as a coach, and what type of team are you expecting this season?

JD: The type of team that I want starts with our recruiting. We recruit mostly Mid-Atlantic, Midwest type kids. Those types of kids are tough, they are overachievers. If you can mix those two things with having some talent, that can be very, very dangerous. I want to be a very energetic team with a chip on their shoulder because that’s what the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic kids sometimes bring. Also to have a swagger or belief because we are held accountable here at Kent State, especially the baseball program, to win championships.

Q: What units are you most excited about?

JD: I’m intrigued by the offense because I think their mentality is changing in getting more aggressive. If we can be in a really aggressive offense, I think our pitching is going to be there. It’s been a staple. I think the offense is starting to believe they can hold their own as well.

Q: How important is assembling a coaching staff as a head coach?

JD: I think I have the best coaching staff in the country, and I truly say that. I have unbelievable experience in my coaching staff. Coach Birkbeck is considered one of the best pitching coaches in the country. He has been here 17 years and has helped me with my transition. Me being an offensive guy and having a pitching guy next to my side like him makes it very, very comforting. Then you have Coach [Alex] Marconi, who has been a head coach in the MAC at Ball State and has had success as a player at Kent [State]. [He’s]been great as a recruiting coordinator and has been very, very good. I hired Brandon Larson as well. [He] played at Louisiana State, won a national title, was a first-round [draft] pick and played in the big leagues. As far as experience, our coaching staff is really experienced on the playing level and even on the coaching level. We have three guys on the staff that have played in the major leagues and all four of us have played professionally. We all have had the opportunity to win championships either in college or in professional baseball. It’s a very unique dynamic.

Q: How much do you look into players’ success or struggles during summer baseball?

JD: I don’t look so much at the success. I just know when they go and play summer baseball that they’re getting better because they’re playing. Nothing is better in baseball than to get experience. It creates a feel for the player. Baseball is such a rhythmic, feel game. The more you play it, the more feel you get. I look at that as just a part of the development. I think it’s a bonus if they do really well, for themselves and the credibility of Kent State, but I just want them to get better.

Q: What is the biggest difference between the Big Ten Conference play and the Mid-American Conference play?

JD: I don’t know. I think maybe there might be a little bit more depth in the Big Ten, but I think the upper echelon of the MAC is just as good if not better than the Big Ten.

Q: What have you experienced during your short time here from the university as well as the community of Kent?

JD: How supportive they are to baseball, it’s been absolutely tremendous. The alumni base is a very tight-knit alumni base. They all want the best for Kent State baseball [players], which has been great.

Q: Throughout your tenure, how do you want other coaches in the conference as well as the nation to describe Kent State baseball?

JD: The program of the north.

Q: Any promises for the upcoming season?

JD: The only thing I can promise is that we’re going to have an unbelievable attitude and enthusiasm for baseball, and it’s going to be a good product.

Q: Anything you would like to say to the university, fan base, alumni or community?

JD: I appreciate the support. Please continue the support and jump on because it’s going to be an exciting, exciting time for Kent State baseball. Believe me when I say this, the tradition will continue.Kevin Battaglia is a sports correspondent for the Daily Kent Stater.

Kevin Battaglia is a sports correspondent for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].