CLEVELAND -- Time to reload for Kent State baseball. The magical 47-20 season is now complete, with memories of the Golden Flashes' first College World Series appearance still fresh.
Several key players must be replaced, and once again KSU has to lock in coach Scott Stricklin with another contract. The only open job out there is Michigan, which beyond sharing the label of "Big Ten" with a big purse, is also akin to jobs at Ohio State, Nebraska, and Notre Dame, where Stricklin's name has surfaced in the past.
Yet he has remained at Kent.
The fact is, after eight years at the helm he's a lot closer to being a consistent College World Series contender in Portage County than he would be at just about any other institution north of the Mason-Dixon line.
"I'm at my alma mater. I met my wife here, we've raised a family here. We love Kent State," Stricklin said more than once during KSU's three-week run to the CWS. "I love Kent State University."
Yet he also left himself some clear negotiating room. "You never know what's going to happen," he said. "You never say never."
Kent has already promised Stricklin new lights for the baseball stadium, with other improvements to come, perhaps including a new, more visible campus entrance from the east that will feature the stadium as it becomes a new focal point for the university. That momentum continues on the fast track if Stricklin is at Kent to push it.
Perhaps not if he's gone.
Following the Golden Flashes' 4-1 elimination from the CWS at the hands of South Carolina, Stricklin sounded like a man more focused on finding roster replacements than leaving.
Kent State loses No. 1 starter David Starn, catcher David Lyon, shortstop Jimmy Rider, pitcher Ryan Mace, and outfielder Joe Koch. It's unknown if junior DH Nick Hamilton, a late-round pick by the Indians, will sign a contract, but junior right-hander Ryan Bores, the 27th-round pick by Texas, has said he will be going pro.
Kent has a core of strong defensive players returning in second baseman Derek Toadvine, right fielder T.J. Sutton, first baseman George Roberts, third baseman Sawyer Polen, center fielder Evan Campbell, and left fielder Alex Miklos. But more than one of those players struggled at the plate in the CWS, indicating a potential recruiting emphasis could be elite hitters.
One plus is DH Jason Bagoly, the star of Kent's 5-4 win over No. 1 Florida, returns, along with sophomore pitcher Tyler Skulina and freshman David Clark. Rider has been an invaluable player at short, but the athletic Campbell, who began his career as a middle infielder, is certainly capable of moving back.
Kent's biggest task in chasing future CWS appearances looks to be keeping Stricklin, 40. He has a base salary of $145,000 and with incentives almost certainly his deal rises to near $200,000, according to AD Joel Nielsen. That's a deal which Nielson believes sits in the middle of the Big Ten pack.
But the bigger key may be Stricklin's vision for the program. Time and again he used Wichita State, a heartland program not quite north or south, as a reference to what KSU baseball could be. The Shockers program that produced former Cleveland Indian Joe Carter was shut down for seven years before returning in 1977. In the 35 years since, WSU has been to the College World Series five times and made 27 NCAA Tournament appearances.
"That's who we look up to, that's who we want to try to get our program like and be consistent on the national stage," Stricklin said.
Although it might be a stretch to see Stricklin at KSU for another decade, in half the time he can set a deep foundation and would still be a young 45. By then Stricklin's name would almost certainly be aligned with more coveted Sunbelt jobs every time one became available.
For now, Nielsen might do very well having Stricklin recruit himself, with the same pitch being given high school prospects.
"One part of my recruiting speech is 'This is the best time ever to be at Kent State' with all the renovations downtown, the new hotel, all that's going on on campus,' Stricklin said. "We're going to keep selling that message. Now we can say, 'We're competing for a national championship' and look'em square in the eye and mean it."
If, as Stricklin says, the time is truly now for KSU baseball, why leave?
S. Carolina 3, Arkansas 2
Tyler Webb and Matt Price combined for seven innings of shutout relief, and two-time defending national champion South Carolina returned to the College World Series finalst.
The Gamecocks (49-18) took the lead in the bottom of the seventh inning on Barrett Astin's two-out, bases-loaded walk to Adam Matthews.
South Carolina will play Arizona in the best-of-three finals beginning Sunday.
The Gamecocks erased a 2-0 deficit in the fifth, with DJ Baxendale walking Christian Walker with the bases loaded to force in the tying run.
Matthews looked ready to swing on a 3-2 pitch from Astin in the seventh, but he held up as the slider dropped low and Joey Pankake trotted home for the go-ahead run.