Flashes accept pressure, ready for season opener

Michael Clark pitches a strike during Monday’svictory against number one ranked Florida.Photo by Philip Botta.


Michael Clark pitches a strike during Monday’svictory against number one ranked Florida.Photo by Philip Botta.

Kevin Battaglia

After a record-setting season in 2012 that resulted in the program’s first College World Series appearance, Kent State will enter this season working to repeat that success.

Last season the team set the school record in wins (47), won the MAC, earned a trip to Omaha, Neb. for the College World Series and finished the season ranked fifth in the nation, the highest ever for the program.

At the College World Series, the Flashes overcame losing their first game to Arkansas by beating the top-seeded Florida Gators. Despite the momentum, the Flashes dropped their next game to South Carolina, ending their Cinderella season.

Outfielder T.J. Sutton said last season’s success has been a long time coming, but the team would like to show the country they are not a “one and done” team.

“Obviously it was the best season we’ve had as a program,” Sutton said. “But we want to do whatever we can to validate that by keeping the same goal of we want to get back [to the College World Series] and we want to win more.”

#5 T.J. Sutton

Position: Infielder/Outfielder

Year: Junior

Height: 5-10

Weight: 180

Bats/Throws: L/L

Hometown: Uniontown, Ohio

High School: Canton GlenOak

Following last season, Sutton was named to the Pre-Season All-MAC Second-Team as a utility player. He finished last season hitting for a .300 average, driving in 30 runs and scoring 32 runs for the Flashes. He also added 60 hits and three home runs. In the field, Sutton converted on all 83 fielding opportunities posting a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage.

#31 Tyler Skulina

Position: RHP

Year: Junior

Height: 6-6

Weight: 225

Bats/Throws: R/R

Hometown: Strongsville, Ohio

High School: Walsh Jesuit

In the offseason Skulina was named to the Louisville Slugger Pre-Season All-American Second-Team by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. He was also named the 78th player in College Baseball Daily’s Top 100. Skulina is a transfer player from the University of Virginia. In 2010, he was selected in the 46th round of the Major League Baseball Draft by the Oakland Athletics, but decided stay in school. After one year in the Mid-American Conference, he was named to this year’s Pre-Season All-MAC First-Team. As a sophomore, Skulina pitched 107.1 innings and led the Flashes in wins (11) and win-loss percentage (.786). He also finished second on the team in strikeouts (106).

#6 George Roberts

Position: Infielder

Year: Senior

Height: 6-0

Weight: 195

Bats/Throws: R/R

Hometown: Summerhill, Pa.

High School: Forest Hills

Last season, Roberts earned the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year award. In the offseason the writers of Collegiate Baseball Newspaper named him to the Louisville Slugger Pre-Season All-American First Team. He also earned preseason All-MAC First-Team honors. As a junior he led the Flashes in batting average (.364), slugging percentage (.549), runs batted in (66) and sacrifice fly balls (9). He also finished second on the team in hits (96), home runs (8), doubles (23) and total bases (145). On the defensive side he finished with a fielding percentage of .988 and recorded a team-leading 542 putouts.

Scott Stricklin

The Flashes’ head coach is entering his ninth season at his alma mater. Stricklin has posted an overall record of 314 wins compared to 165 losses during his coaching career. Those numbers have earned him MAC Coach of the Year three times and America Baseball Coaches Association Mideast Region Coach of the Year once. Following the 2012 season, he was honored as Coach of the Year from the American Baseball Coaches Association, Rawlings NCAA Mideast Region and Mid-American Conference. He was also named Co-National Coach of the Year from CollegeBaseballInsider.com. Stricklin has produced 30 MLB first-year player draft picks and 40 All-Conference selections. During his tenure, he has led the Flashes to four regular season conference championships, five conference tournament titles, five NCAA regional berths, one NCAA Super Regional berth and one NCAA College World Series berth.

The Flashes’ schedule this season is one the team hopes will prepare them for a postseason run.

The schedule features opening the season playing 17 straight road games, including series against two top 25 nationally ranked programs, Louisville and San Diego. The team will then host Pittsburgh before opening conference play with a three-game series at Northern Illinois.

With 57 regular season games, the Flashes will host 18 at home. Head Coach Scott Stricklin said the schedule is difficult and acknowledged traveling so often is a grind on the players and coaches, but said the team takes pride in the tough schedule.

“If we’re able to get some good quality wins against great teams it’s going to help us when it comes to the postseason,” Stricklin said.

Sutton also believes the traveling works to the advantage of the Flashes.

“The teams we’re going to play, they’re at home, they’re comfortable. They don’t have to ride on the bus or stop to eat buffet food two stops a day,” Sutton said. “But I think that’s where we come together as a team and that helps build team camaraderie.”

Despite the tough schedule, the team goal is to win the MAC with aspirations of getting back to the College World Series.

Pitcher Tyler Skulina said the team needs to take the season one game at a time. He believes that winning a MAC championship is the most important because without that, it will be hard to make it back to the College World Series. Skulina added with the way the schedule is set up, it is essential to get off to a winning start.

“I think we’re going to be more prepared this year and guys are going to be ready to play,” Skulina said.

Stricklin believes in order for the team to improve from last season’s success, they will need to continue the consistency left behind by past teams. He agrees that the Flashes have to do well in the conference to give them another shot at the College World Series.

“If we can get back to a regional [game], we have a lot of experience,” Stricklin said. “That’s our goal, to win the MAC championship, get to a regional and see what happens from there.”

For the Flashes to continue last season’s success, they will rely on a number of players with experience, most notably seniors Evan Campbell and George Roberts and juniors Skulina and Sutton.

All four players were honored with preseason accolades. College Sports Madness named Campbell, Roberts and Skulina to first team and Sutton to second team All-MAC.

Campbell finished last season with a .312 average, 40 RBI, 61 runs scored and seven home runs.

Roberts batted a team leading .364 with 66 RBI, 45 runs scored and eight home runs. He is also recognized for his defensive skills with a .988 fielding percentage.

Skulina finished 11-3 in 18 starts in 2012. His season ended with a 3.77 earned run average, striking out 106 batters and walking 45 in 107.1 innings.

Sutton batted .300 with 30 RBI, 32 runs scored and three home runs.

In addition, the writers of Collegiate Baseball also named Roberts and Skulina Louisville Slugger Pre-Season All-Americans. Roberts was named to first team while Skulina received second team honors.

“It’s definitely a big honor to be an All-American but the biggest focus for me is to get this team ready for the season,” Roberts said. “Individual goals for me aren’t that big. I’d trade any award in to get back to Omaha.”

The team will need to fill some holes left by other players, most notably in the bullpen. Skulina said although the pitching staff has lost key players from last season’s staff to graduation and the Major League Baseball draft, he believes the bullpen may be even deeper than last year.

“Some of the guys stepped up this offseason to prepare themselves well,” Skulina said. “We’re hoping this is going to be one of the better pitching staffs [the team] has had in a long time.”

Although the team has not played a game yet, Stricklin is impressed with the way the team has practiced so far. He stated the team has added a very talented freshmen class in the offseason that is competing for positions in the field, in the batting order and in the bullpen. He also hinted to keep an eye out for junior college transfer Taylor Williams, a pitcher who is expected to compete for a front spot in the rotation.

Skulina believes the program’s consistent success and the run it made last year have led to more recruits giving attention to the university.

“Last year was a big year for the program. Recruits from Ohio looking to go elsewhere are now giving Kent a second look,” Skulina said.

The Flashes are returning from an offseason in which they were presented with various accolades and awards as a team.

In January, the team was presented with Collegiate Athlete of the Year at the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards, ending the three-year reign of the University of Akron soccer program. The team also has earned national recognition by being ranked in the top 50 programs by various sports outlets. Shortly after last season, Baseball America and the Baseball Coaches Association named pitching coach Mike Birkbeck Assistant Coach of the Year.

Stricklin was honored as Coach of the Year from the American Baseball Coaches Association, Rawlings NCAA Mideast Region and Mid-American Conference after the 2012 season. He was also named Co-National Coach of the Year from CollegeBaseballInsider.com. As a result, the university awarded Stricklin with a six-year contract extension.

“The university is behind [the coaching staff] 100 percent, we have an athletic department behind [the coaching staff] 100 percent, and we just want to keep getting better every single year,” Stricklin said.

Kent State’s month ahead on the road

Date Opponent Location
Feb. 15 Virginia Tech Wilmington, N.C.
Feb. 15 UNC-Wilmington Wilmington, N.C.
Feb. 16 Virginia Tech Wilmington, N.C.
Feb. 17 UNC-Wilmington Wilmington, N.C.
Feb. 22 No. 20 San Diego San Diego, Calif.
Feb. 23 No. 20 San Diego San Diego, Calif.
Feb 23 No. 20 San Diego San Diego, Calif.
Feb. 24 No. 20 San Diego San Diego, Calif.
Mar. 1 No. 19 Louisville Louisville, Ky.
Mar. 2 No. 19 Louisville Louisville, Ky.
Mar.3 No. 19 Louisville Louisville, Ky.
Mar. 8 Charlotte Charlotte, N.C.
Mar. 9 Charlotte Charlotte, N.C.
Mar. 10 Charlotte Charlotte, N.C.
Mar. 15 Memphis Memphis, Tenn.
Mar. 16 Memphis Memphis, Tenn.
Mar. 17 Memphis Memphis, Tenn.

The university will also reward current and future players with a unique addition to Schoonover Stadium.

Lights will be installed in the stadium for later home games starting this season. Stricklin said the lights will help with recruiting but also push games back to a later time so fans will be able to attend more games, creating great atmospheres.

“I’m excited to see the people in this community come out to watch some baseball under the lights,” he said.

Even with all the accolades and awards this offseason, the Flashes know that the national spotlight is on them now and they accept the pressure that comes with it.

“We’re not going to be able to sneak up on teams like we’ve done in the past. Everyone is going to be gunning for us,” Roberts said.

Despite the pressure, high expectations and a difficult schedule, the team’s spirits are as good as they can be.

“I kind of like [the traveling] actually,” Sutton joked. “It gives us the chance to get caught up on all the newest movies.”

The Flashes will start the season at noon Feb. 15 against Virginia Tech in Wilmington, N.C.

Contact Kevin Battaglia at [email protected].