Kent State had just been eliminated from the College World Series and coach Scott Stricklin sat in a TD Ameritrade Park dugout, staring straight ahead and soaking in what was left of the moment.
He'd popped the battery out, then back, into his cellphone, but the device wasn't working. So all he could do was sit statue-like on the bench and watch the grounds crew manicure the field. His players grabbed their things, sharing hugs and smiles in between. A few dozen kids could be heard shouting for autographs.
Stricklin's stay in college baseball paradise had come to an end.
One can't help but wonder if he and the Golden Flashes will return. Stricklin's certainly thought about it.
Not too long after his team's final game of 2012, he told reporters: “If I knew why we're here, I'd write a book and I'd retire.”
A few nearby programs in a certain league lacking success on baseball's national stage would probably be quick to buy a copy.
No Big Ten school, many blessed with more resources than Kent State, has made it to Omaha since 1984. Seven teams have combined to earn the conference's eight NCAA tournament bids in the past five years.
Consistency has been almost unattainable for Midwest baseball programs recently — except for the Flashes, who might be the most stable program in Big Ten country since Stricklin took over after the 2004 season.
Kent State relies heavily on local talent and effective player development. The coaching staff hasn't changed in almost a decade. The Flashes have been below the 11.7 scholarship limitation for two seasons. And Kent State is the only public institution with a baseball team whose APR score has been in the top 10 percent for three straight years.
That's the blueprint. Can it be duplicated?
“It's a good question,” said Michigan State coach Jake Boss, whose Spartans become the first Big Ten team to earn an at-large NCAA tournament bid in three years this postseason. Boss said that the talent in the region is better than most perceive, but southern schools get the benefit of the doubt more often from the selection committee.
Several Big Ten coaches want reform, proposing a portion of the season be played in the fall, or that some teams just break away and suit up in the summer.
Stricklin was hesitant to support such legislation. But then again, he's not sure his team will make this run again.
Getting into the NCAA tournament is always the steepest hurdle. And it's largely out of his hands.
His program faced Georgia Tech, Pepperdine, New Mexico State and Fresno State in nonconference play this year, but had an RPI just inside the top 75.
What if the Flashes happened to falter in the MAC tournament and not receive the automatic NCAA bid? They wouldn't have been in the field of 64. Same goes for Stony Brook, the underdog from Long Island that had an RPI of 86 but reached the CWS.
“You hope that gives us some leeway with the selection committee (in the future),” Stricklin said. “They can say, this is good for college baseball, to have teams outside of the Southeast and outside of the West, it's good for college baseball. We want this to be a national sport.”
The committee will review its selection process in July.
The RPI, a metric tool used by the committee to evaluate teams, will be tweaked in 2013, weighted to reward more for victories on the road. It's presumed to aid the northern schools that travel for the first month of the season. No other drastic changes are expected, though.
The best bet for teams in the North? Play a tough schedule and beat those respected teams, said Kyle Kallander, the NCAA Division I baseball committee chair.
“You've got to have quality wins if you want to be considered for an at-large selection,” he said.
Easier said than done.
At Stony Brook, a roster capped at 28 (because of institutional rules) travels by bus nearly every weekend. Budget doesn't allow for many plane trips. The Seawolves do go to California once every four years. But when they road trip to North Carolina next season, they'll be driving.
So if Stony Brook doesn't win the America East tournament — like in 2011, when the 42-win Seawolves were upset twice — it stays home in June. No shocking the world. Just disappointment.
“It's got to hopefully open up eyes that there are teams perhaps worth inviting to the national tournament,” Stony Brook coach Matt Senk said, “rather than maybe from one of the power conferences.”
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