June 4, 2012


Experience key for Kent State, St. John’s

By Sean Ryan

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder

Sean@collegebaseballinsider.com @collbaseball


For years, St. John’s and Kent State have been knocking on the door of college baseball’s elite. On Sunday, the Red Storm and Golden Flashes finally broke through in the NCAA Tournament, each capturing Regional titles and securing berths in the Super Regionals.


St. John’s (40-21) beat No. 6 national seed North Carolina for the second time in two days as Frank Schwindel went 5 for 5 and Sean O’Hare and Robert Case had two RBI apiece in a 9-5 win over the Tar Heels. The Red Storm earned their first Regional title since 1980 and will appear in its first Super Regional when it faces Arizona. A day earlier, St. John’s beat North Carolina on Danny Bethea’s game-winning three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth of a 5-4 win.  


“It feels good,” said coach Ed Blankmeyer, who has guided St. John’s to three straight regionals and 40 wins for the sixth time in eight years, early Monday morning. “Like anything else, you continue knocking on the door, you’re hoping one day it opens. It opened for us. We deserve this, we earned this.”


About 750 miles away in Gary, Ind., Evan Campbell hit a three-run homer that barely escaped U.S. Steel Yard and made a leaping grab in center field to preserve a 3-2 lead as Kent State (44-17) beat Kentucky (45-18) for the second time in the Regional. The first victory was an epic 7-6, 21-inning win Friday that spanned six hours and 37 minutes.   


“It still kind of hasn’t sunk in yet,” Golden Flashes coach Scott Stricklin (left) said late Sunday night. “We’re all very excited. We came here with the idea that we were going to win this Regional.”


That St. John’s and Kent State are moving on is sure to surprise casual college baseball fans who check the sport out around this time each year. But to most around the college baseball world, it wasn’t a matter of if, but when: Experience is an attribute of both squads.


The Red Storm is in the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season, having been sent to Charlottesville each of the previous two years. Two years ago, when many of this year’s squad were freshmen and sophomores, they battled Ole Miss and lefty ace Drew Pomeranz in losing the opener. Last year, St. John’s won its first game against East Carolina and drew Virginia and another top Major League draft pick in lefty ace Danny Hultzen. Although the Red Storm left without a Regional crown, it gained invaluable experience.


“You hit the nail on the head,” Blankmeyer said. “If you’ve been there a couple times, you understand what it takes.”


Blankmeyer said that it helped this year’s team to have a chance to play at North Carolina earlier this season. Having played East Carolina in Charlottesville last year, Blankmeyer said they had a familiarity with the teams they ended up beating at the Chapel Hill Regional.


In the three years leading up to this season, the Golden Flashes had been sent to Regionals hosted by Arizona State, UCLA and Texas, where last season, the Golden Flashes beat the Longhorns on Day 2 and needed one more win to capture the Regional. But Texas stormed back to win twice and end the Flashes’ dreams.


“The fact that we were so close last year certainly helped us,” Stricklin said. “The experience factor I think weighed heavily in this thing.”


Stricklin pointed out after Friday’s win that none of the other three teams in the Gary Regional had postseason experience with their current teams – of Kentucky, Purdue and Valparaiso, the Wildcats were the most recent participants in the NCAA tourney in 2008.  


Kent State has won 20 straight games heading into its Super Regional showdown at Oregon.


“We’ve played like this for six weeks,” Stricklin said. “We’ve been near perfect for six weeks. We’ve played great baseball.”


That run began in earnest in mid-April, when the Flashes blew late leads twice in losing two of three at MAC rival Bowling Green. The team entered the weekend unbeaten in conference play, and by and large, playing pretty well. But Stricklin saw flaws.


“It’s hard to get on your team when you’re winning,” he said. “When we lost two out of three to Bowling Green, it gave our coaches the opportunity to get on them a little bit.”


It’s safe to say the Golden Flashes responded.


At St. John’s, Blankmeyer’s team dropped three of four at a very good Liberty squad and saw itself at 4-9 in the early going. Before long, though, the Red Storm’s deep and talented team began following in the footsteps of previous teams.


“I think parity is occurring in college baseball,” Blankmeyer said. “I think you’re going to see more and more non-traditional teams breaking through.”


For St. John’s, which boasts Frank Viola and John Franco as alums, and Kent State, which claims Thurman Munson and Gene Michael, that time has come.


(photos courtesy of Kent State & St. John's Media Relations Offices)