OMAHA, Neb. -- Kent State just wanted to make a statement.
The Golden Flashes put together quite an impressive run to the College World Series. They won the Gary, Ind., Regional before hitting the road again and taking two of three from Oregon in the Eugene Super Regional.
Still, as the Flashes walked off the field Saturday after an 8-1 loss to Arkansas, the chants of "SEC, SEC", from Hogs fans resonated with the players, and especially coach Scott Stricklin.
The Flashes, as with Stony Brook, entered this CWS as a so-called Cinderella team. But the Flashes didn't want to suffer the same fate as the Seawolves, who were outscored 21-3 in two games here in Omaha. Kent wanted to impress, though, the task of doing so against SEC juggernaut Florida seemed unlikely heading into Monday's elimination contest.
Though the Flashes certainly had plenty of doubters on Monday, they put together -- outside of some shaky pitching in the ninth inning -- a complete performance both offensively and on the mound in a thrilling 5-4 win over the Gators, who entered the CWS as the No. 1 national seed and overwhelming favorite to win the national title.
"We heard those chants on Saturday, and we wanted people to know we belonged here," Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. "We wanted to make a statement."
Though facing elimination against the ultra-talented Gators, it was the Flashes -- not Florida -- who seemed loose and relaxed before the game. Prior to Game Three of the Eugene Super Regional last weekend, Stricklin stressed relaxation with his team as they entered their most important game of the season at the time.
It wasn't any different this go-round. The Flashes couldn't have gotten off to a better start against the Gators. They scored a run in the first inning on a George Roberts RBI single, and already entered the UF bullpen in the second inning when starting pitcher Hudson Randall was forced to leave the game because of breathing issues related to the heat, which neared the 97-degree mark.
Florida reliever Jonathon Crawford had a shaky second inning, as the Flashes got back-to-back RBI singles from David Lyon and George Roberts, essentially setting the tone for the game in Kent's favor.
"We were really relaxed. We talked about it last night, we wanted to be loose and relaxed," Stricklin said. "Our kids were the aggressors and if you were watching that game and had never seen a college baseball game before and didn't know any better, we looked awfully good out there."
The Flashes were in control for much of the game, carrying a 5-1 lead into the fifth inning. Then, the Gators showed a lot of grit by making a huge push. They scored a run in the sixth to cut the deficit to 5-2 before making things very interesting in the seventh inning with two runs on a Mike Zunino RBI single, and another run when Taylor Gushue scored on a double play.
The Gators, down 5-4 in the ninth inning, once again showed much grit. They were patient at the plate, as Flashes reliever Michael Clark threw eight-straight balls in the ninth inning before giving way to Josh Pierce. The Gators loaded the bases with just one out before Casey Turgeon struck out in somewhat controversial fashion and Justin Shafer flew out to right field to end the game.
"It came down to the last out and that's something you expect in an elimination game. We got thrown a curveball there with Hudson [Randall] in the first inning, but give credit to the Kent State hitters. They battled and separates themselves," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "I'm awfully proud of the way we battled back. We hung in there, but got a big strikeout there near the end. But we were in it until the last out. Kent State just did a little more today."
With the win, Kent State captures its first College World Series victory in program history. Meanwhile, the Gators head home with another disappointing finish.
Florida has accomplished a lot the past few seasons. It has reached the CWS three-straight occasions, and competed for the national title against South Carolina last season. That setback was expected to fuel the Gators' fire at this year's CWS, but it wasn't meant to be.
The quick exit from Omaha makes us ponder how the Gators will look when they take the field in 2013. The Gators certainly will welcome back some talented arms such as Jonathon Crawford, Karsten Whitson, among others, in addition to talented hitters Justin Shafer, Josh Tobias and Casey Turgeon. However, UF will have some major holes to fill with some likely key departures.
Mike Zunino and Brian Johnson were first rounders and likely are gone, while Nolan Fontana and Steve Rodriguez were second rounders, Austin Maddox a third-rounder, Preston Tucker and Hudson Randall seventh-rounders, Daniel Pigott a ninth-rounder and always consistent reliever Greg Larson a 20th-rounder.
The Gators very well could lose all to the MLB draft -- it might even be expected. Still, the bar certainly has been raised in Gainesville, Fla., with what this junior and senior classes have accomplished the last three seasons.
"They've been very successful and great players, and a great representation of what we want as a program," O'Sullivan said. "I've been awfully proud of the way they've played and represented this program. They've set a standard that following teams will have to live up to."
For yet another season, the top national seed won't win a national title. Meanwhile, Kent State made its statement.
GAME IN REVIEW
PLAYER OF THE GAME: 1B George Roberts, Kent State -- Roberts has had a great campaign for the Golden Flashes, and he rose to the occasion against the Gators. He had a pair of RBI singles in the first two innings to help Kent take control. He finished the contest 2-for-4 with two RBIs.
UNSUNG HERO: RHP Ryan Bores, Kent State -- He won't get the game ball in this one, but give a lot of credit to Bores for holding the Gators offense down. Bores only struck out one batter and walked two, but allowed just two runs on six hits in six innings of work. He threw 80 pitches, 49 for strikes.
GAME WAS OVER WHEN: Kent State had a chance to put away the Gators in the middle innings, but Florida fought back and made it a contest in the ninth inning. Therefore, this game truly wasn't over until Justin Shafer flew out to end the game. As a result, Stricklin and the Flashes breathed a sigh of relief.
WHAT'S NEXT: Florida heads home with a 47-20 overall record, while the Flashes stay alive to face South Carolina in an elimination game. The Flashes are expected to start impressive starting pitcher Tyler Skulina (3.63, 101 2/3 IP).