Mid-major programs having success at the top level of college baseball is nothing new. Rice won a national title as part of the WAC in 2003, Fresno State did the same in 2008, and Coastal Carolina won the national title as a member of the Big South in 2016. Much like in basketball, there are also those programs, like Rice and Coastal Carolina, for example, that are mid-major by conference affiliation only, but operate like major programs and have the talent to match.
However, mid-majors across the country, even beyond those most recognizable names, are having their moment in college baseball.
Each year, it seems like a different mid-major breaks down some wall for the program or conference, whether it’s getting to a regional final for the first time, getting through to a super regional like Sam Houston State and Davidson did in 2017, or getting to the promised land of Omaha like Coastal Carolina did on the way to a national title in 2016.
With more and more athletic departments investing in baseball as they realize that they can make a national impression in the sport, the state of Ohio is home to two of the most consistently successful mid-major programs in the country- Kent State and Wright State.
The Golden Flashes have been nearly metronomic in their consistency for the better part of two decades. They’ve won 31 or more games every year since 1999, and during that span of time, they’ve won 35 or more games 14 times and 40 or more games on five separate occasions. They’ve also only lost double-digit games in conference play five times since 1999, with only one of those seasons, 2005, ending with a sub-.500 league record (9-10), and only one such season of double-digit conference losses has come since that 2005 campaign.
And finally, since 1999, they’ve made nine trips to regionals, including four consecutive from 2009-2014, no small feat when you consider that getting into a regional from the MAC usually means getting hot in the MAC Tournament and winning the automatic bid. The crowning achievement, of course, came in 2012, when KSU swept their way through a regional in Gary, Indiana and won a road super regional against Oregon to make their first appearance in the College World Series, where they were one of two surprise entrants, along with Stony Brook of the America East.
Using another measure of success, KSU has also become something of a head coach factory. Each of the three coaches prior to current head coach Jeff Duncan left to become head coaches at major programs.
Danny Hall, who coached the program between 1988-1993 and led them to regional appearances in 1992 and 1993 for the first time since the 1964 season, went on to become the head coach at Georgia Tech in 1994, a post he still holds today. His successor, Rick Rembielak, led the Golden Flashes from 1994 to 2004 before leaving for Wake Forest, and most recently, Scott Stricklin parlayed his success from 2004 to 2013 into earning the job as the head coach at Georgia.
Kent State hasn’t gotten into a regional since 2014, Duncan’s first year on the job, but it’s not as if they haven’t done their usual damage in the regular season. In 2015, they were 31-22 with an 18-9 record in the MAC. In 2016, they ran roughshod over the rest of the league on the way to going 44-14 (the program’s first 40-win season since the 2012 CWS year) with a 20-4 record in conference play, and in 2017, they went 37-18 with an 18-6 league mark. In the last two years in particular, they’ve simply been a victim of being in a one-bid league despite having regional-caliber clubs.
In 2018, KSU will lean heavily on starting pitching. Part of that is because they return two proven commodities as good as just about any. Joey Murray was nearly unhittable as a sophomore, going 6-1 with a 1.80 ERA. In 75 innings, he had a 110/32 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .204 opponent batting average. Eli Kraus was more durable, if not quite as dominant as Murray. He went 8-3 with a 2.69 ERA. In 93.2 innings, he had a 73/21 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .225 opponent batting average.
But part of that is also because they’ll be doing some rebuilding on offense. Leading hitter Luke Burch is gone, as is top power bat Dylan Rosa and solid contributor Dom Iero. That’s 46 of the team’s 106 doubles from a year ago and 20 of the team’s 41 homers.
Turnover is nothing new for this program, however. Anytime you are this successful, you’re going to constantly deal with losing productive players, whether to pro baseball or graduation. Pitching coach Mike Birkbeck, who has been in place for the last 22 years, will undoubtedly continue to develop not only Murray and Kraus, but other pitchers around that pair, and at this point, KSU deserves the benefit of the doubt that they’ll build enough offense around the pitching staff to finish at or near the top of the MAC once again. They’ve just simply done it so many times before.
Wright State is more of a Johnny-come-lately in terms of their success, but they have absolutely burst onto the scene.
The program had some success under Ron Nischwitz (for whom their stadium is named) in their earliest years of the program, but things really got going under Rob Cooper, who is now the head coach at Penn State. Cooper served as the head coach at WSU from 2005 until 2013, leading the Raiders to regionals in 2006, 2009, and 2011, and going 286-230 overall and 141-84 in Horizon League play.
Greg Lovelady took over from there, and kicked things up a notch. In his three seasons at the helm, from 2014 to 2016, he led the Raiders to a 124-56 record with a dominant 69-18 mark in conference play, on the way to regional appearances in 2015 and 2016. Taking it a step further, in both of those regional appearances, WSU advanced to the regional final.
Jeff Mercer has only been on the job for one season, but with his team going 38-21 with a 21-9 record in the Horizon League in 2017, he’s off to a good start.
Wright State fell short of getting to a regional for a third straight season in 2017, but they’ll have a good chance to avenge themselves, what with such a large chunk of talent returning.
Offensively, the top four hitters are back in Matt Morrow (.330/.427/.487, 14 2B, 5 HR, 13 SB), Seth Gray (.300/.350/.416, 13 2B, 19 SB), Gabe Snyder (.289/.379/.570, 17 2B, 13 HR, 12 SB), and Adrian Marquez (.261/.345/.459, 15 2B, 6 HR, 11 SB). Also back are Zach Weatherford, who hit just .239 in 2017, but got on base at a .350 clip and set a WSU single-season record with 36 stolen bases, and J.D. Orr, who hit just .238/.333/.350 a year ago, but hit .346/.396/.420 in 2016 as a freshman.
Suffice it to say that the Raiders will have plenty of firepower on hand.
On the mound, they, too, will return two-thirds of their weekend rotation from a year ago in Zane Collins (7-5, 2.83 ERA, 92.1 IP, .216 OBA) and Ryan Weiss (8-1, 2.13 ERA, 88.2 IP, 80/20 strikeout-to-walk ratio, .237 OBA). They’ll also have back relief ace Derek Hendrixson (1.77 ERA, 35.2 IP, 39/12 strikeout-to-walk ratio, .178 OBA, 9 SV) and swingman Jeremy Randolph (3.76 ERA, 52.2 IP).
As if that wasn’t enough, the Raiders will also get back a couple of key pieces from 2016 who missed all of 2017 with injury, one on offense and one on the mound.
Offensively, Peyton Burdick is back in the fold. As a freshman in 2016, he hit .289/.409/.443 with 14 doubles. On the mound, that player is Caleb Sampen, also a redshirt sophomore. He was named the Horizon League Freshman of the Year in 2016 after going 9-4 with a 2.76 ERA. In 94.2 innings of work, he struck out 57, walked just 23, and held opponents to a .219 batting average. Losing Danny Sexton from the 2017 rotation is a loss, but assuming Sampen moves right back into the rotation in Sexton’s spot, WSU is set up nicely.
Illinois-Chicago is an outstanding program in their own right, and we saw that in 2017 when they won the league title and grabbed the automatic bid, but WSU was with them step-for-step in Horizon League play, and with what the Raiders have coming back for 2018, it’s hard to see anyone keeping up with them this time around.
The growth of college baseball in recent years is astounding, and a lot of that is due to increased success for mid-majors programs across the country. As time goes on, we should expect to see more of that, but with what they’ve already accomplished, Kent State and Wright State are way ahead of the curve.