Duncan leads Kent State back to NCAAs

Gone is the coach, Scott Stricklin, who led the Kent State baseball team to the College World Series two years ago, but while their former skipper is now the head coach of the University of Georgia, the tradition of success on the baseball diamond is still with the Golden Flashes.

Under first-year coach Jeff Duncan, the Golden Flashes (36-21) went undefeated through the 2014 Mid-American Conference Tournament and beat their archrivals, the Akron Zips, in the championship game to claim the conference's automatic berth to the NCAA Regional Tournament, which starts tonight when Kent State takes on the host team, the Louisville Cardinals.

"Pressure, that's fine," Duncan said after winning the championship. "That's good. That's expectation, and that's what this baseball program is all about. The expectations are high. In this whole athletic department, the expectations are high, and you'd just like to carry that torch."

For leading the Golden Flashes back to the NCAA Tournament, the players showered Duncan with a Gatorade bath.

Although Duncan enjoyed the celebration, he was quick to credit the work of his assistant coaches and players for the 36 victories and return trip to the NCAA Regional Tournament.

"It means a lot, moving forward, but my coaching staff is outstanding," Duncan said. "When you have a pitching coach that's been here as long as Coach (Mike) Birkbeck, and all the success we've had, we put nine zeroes up. When you do that, you're going to win a lot of games. Coach (Alex) Marconi did a great job with these guys all year long, and Coach (Brandon) Larson too. I'm blessed to have a good coaching staff.

"It's unbelievable. You think about the guys that stepped in for guys like Sawyer Polen and Alex Miklos. Zach Beckner's a freshman that moved over to short and did an outstanding job all tournament, made all the plays, made all the routine plays and came up with big hits. Then, you've got Troy Summers, who really hadn't played all season long, and he's ready to play. He's worked hard and he came up big for us in this tournament."

The players, like Summers, "came up big" in the MAC Tournament because they know the tradition of the Kent State baseball program and wanted to add their chapter in the history books.

"Coming into it, we had the confidence that we were going to do it, and we came out on top," designated hitter Zarley Zalewski said. "This school has a tradition of winning, and we just continued that tradition this year with a big win here at Kent State with this MAC Tournament Championship."

Those players that Duncan credited were happy to play for him and be a part of Kent State's return to the NCAA Tournament.

"Dunc's been a great transition," pitcher John Fasola said. "He's done a great job. It's just awesome to be behind him as a coach. The tradition here is winning, and that's what we wanted to do. We just want to pick up where we left off."

Senior first baseman Cody Koch added, "They made a little switch because he's more offensive minded compared to Stricklin, so that allowed me to relax at the plate, knowing that he trusted me. Our defense and pitching just continued to do what they did all year."


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