The road to a Mid-American Conference baseball championship ends in Avon, Ohio, but that path also goes through Kent.
Kent State has dominated the diamond for the last five years, winning four MAC titles during that stretch. The Golden Flashes have advanced to the NCAA
Tournament seven times in the last 11 seasons.
But Kent State might just have outdone itself this season. The Golden Flashes finished the season with an incredible 24-3 MAC record, tying their own conference mark for single-season wins.
“They have good pitching, they are very good defensively, and they make good contact,” Ohio coach Joe Carbone said. “They are very well coached. They’re the class of the Mid-American Conference this year.”
From the stat sheet, Kent State does not appear to have a weakness. Eight of the team’s nine regular starters are batting at least .285, and six have at least 20 RBIs. The team is even more dominant defensively, as the Golden Flashes’ three starting pitchers have a combined record of 24-7 with a very respectable earned-run average of 3.06. Two of those starters have more strikeouts than hits allowed.
The success has come in what would be a rebuilding year for most mid-major college programs. Six Kent State players signed professional baseball contracts after last season.
“Our guys expect to win every single year,” Golden Flashes head coach Scott Stricklin said. “We reloaded and had some guys really step up, and we’ve been able to do that year after year.”
Senior catcher David Lyon has won a MAC tournament title each of his first three years at Kent State, and he’ll be looking to complete the sweep. Lyon leads the team in home runs and has gunned down 12 of the 19 runners who tried to steal while he was behind the plate.
“David Lyon is the best defensive catcher in the country,” Stricklin said about the Lowe’s Senior Class Award finalist. “I have no qualms about saying that. He’s that good.”
Because Kent State lost only three conference games all season, it might seem unlikely that the team will lose twice in the double-elimination tournament. But Ohio players remain confident that they can silence the Golden Flashes. Kent State swept the Bobcats at Bob Wren Stadium earlier this month, outscoring Ohio 25-6 across three games.
“When we played them, I thought it was pretty evenly matched. Our errors hurt us a little bit. We didn’t have timely hitting,” freshman left fielder Tyler Wells said.
“When we bring our A-game and they bring theirs, it’s going to be a pretty evenly matched game and we have a good chance to beat them come tournament time.”
Ohio opens the tournament with a Wednesday-morning matchup with Western Michigan while Kent State will round out the evening against Buffalo, which is making its first-ever tournament appearance. If both Buckeye State squads win, they will play Thursday at All Pro Freight Stadium.
“I think we haven’t seen pitching as good as they had, but now that we’ve seen them one time around, if we make it to Kent, it will be a better game than what it was in the regular season,” senior right fielder Jensen Painter said.