OMAHA, Neb.: Kent State’s first trip to the College World Series might reap benefits for the program and the university no one is aware of yet.
But before it can be discussed where KSU baseball goes from here, the athletic department must find out if its promising future will include coach Scott Stricklin.
Speculation was rampant about Michigan’s pursuit of Stricklin after KSU was eliminated from the CWS with a 4-1 loss Thursday to two-time defending champion South Carolina at TD Ameritrade Park.
Michigan is the lone-major college job unfilled. Internet speculation has former Cincinnati Red and UM grad Chris Sabo, Wolverines pitching coach Steve Merriman and Maryland coach Erik Bakich among the candidates.
Stricklin, 40, has been at Kent State for eight seasons. Stricklin’s base salary is $145,000, but Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen said Stricklin might reach $200,000 this year with incentives.
Nielsen added that KSU’s baseball salaries would rank in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.
Kent State has already staved off feelers or interest from Notre Dame, Ohio State and Nebraska for Stricklin, and Nielsen said he’s done “more than one” contract revision for the former Golden Flashes catcher.
“I’m at my alma mater. I met my wife here, we’ve raised a family here. We love Kent State,” Stricklin said, addressing the rumors. “I love Kent State University. You never know what’s going to happen. You never say never.”
Nielsen said he has been concerned about losing Stricklin since he took over at KSU in March, 2010.
“It says a lot about him, about our program, about the recognition we’re getting,” Nielsen said. “He’s been getting that for years. He’s not some Johnny-come-lately, some surprise. Everybody knows about Scott and the job he’s done at Kent State.
“We’ll continue to have conversations, probably not long after we land back at Kent.”
Nielsen said they’ve had “some conversations with people” about Stricklin. Asked if there were formal overtures, essentially requests for permission to interview Stricklin, Nielsen said, “Some are more than others, I guess you’d say.”
“Scott wanted to concentrate on the College World Series, and I appreciate that about him,” Nielsen said. “We’ve got a great relationship, we talk openly about opportunities when they come, when we’re hearing rumors and that sort of thing.
“Scott and I both said we’ll wait until the College World Series is over, go back to Kent, maybe go out to dinner, maybe take our wives out for dinner and talk about it.”
KSU could have a replacement waiting in pitching coach Mike Birkbeck, who turned down the job later offered to Stricklin in 2004. Completing his 15th season with the Golden Flashes, Birkbeck already draws a six-figure salary.
Stricklin might not be ready to jump to another northern school and could wait to explore next year’s openings. On Monday, he sounded ready to dive into recruiting from the class of 2013.
“We’re behind in recruiting right now. We’ll be on the road very quickly to catch up,” he said. “We’ve got a couple infielders already committed. We need to get an outfielder, a catcher, three or four pitchers. We’ll sign eight guys like we always do. We’re not going to sign 15 or 20 and run guys off.”
While other teams might have a head start, Stricklin knows the players he’s targeting might have been watching some of the Golden Flashes’ nine NCAA Tournament games, including three in the College World Series, where they beat No. 1-ranked Florida.
“We’re not able to see recruits because we’re out here, but recruits have been able to see us,” he said. “That’s the biggest key to coming out here, you’re in the limelight. The kids you’ve been in contact with for the last year have gotten to see us play. Now, we’ve got to get out there and let people see us.”
Stricklin said his blueprint to build KSU’s program comes from Wichita State. There had been no baseball for seven years when coach Gene Stephenson arrived in 1977. The Shockers have been to the College World Series five times since 1988 and have 27 NCAA Tournament appearances in the last 32 years.
“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.
While Stricklin insists he’ll continue to concentrate on signing the best in Ohio and western Pennsylvania, next year’s incoming players include one from Michigan and a junior college transfer, right-handed starter Taylor Williams, who began his career at Washington State. He played summer-league ball with second baseman Derek Toadvine, catcher David Lyon and pitcher Tyler Skulina. Toadvine said Williams touched 96 mph on the radar gun while they were with the Keene (N.H.) Swamp Bats.
“Sometimes flukes like that happen,” Stricklin said.
Stricklin said they received a commitment from a recruit after they captured the super regional in Oregon.
That could be just the beginning as Kent State looks to replace No. 1 starter David Starn, Lyon, shortstop Jimmy Rider, pitcher Ryan Mace and outfielder Joe Koch. Junior right-hander Ryan Bores, drafted in the 27th round by the Texas Rangers, has said he’s going pro. Yet to announce his intention is redshirt junior designated hitter Nick Hamilton, who was drafted by the Indians.
But the Golden Flashes have a young core returning in CWS starters Toadvine, right fielder T.J. Sutton, first baseman George Roberts, third baseman Sawyer Polen and left fielder Alex Miklos. The latter two are freshmen. Jason Bagoly could become the DH if Hamilton departs. Skulina and David Clark, a reliever who could become a starter, head the list of returning pitchers. The most glaring need seems to be at shortstop.
“One part of my recruiting speech is ‘This is the best time to ever 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 and keep bringing kids in who want to compete for a national championship. We can say that now. I used to say that and it didn’t really mean much — we were competing for MAC championships and going to play in regionals. Now we can say, ‘We’re competing for a national championship’ and look ’em square in the eye and mean it.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.