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Kent State's rotation has it rolling along.

Byline: Rob Moseley The Register-Guard

When a team loses six players to the pro baseball draft - four in the top 10 rounds - and among them is a left-handed ace who passes up his junior year to sign a contract, the likelihood of a breakthrough season seems slim.

One year after Kent State suffered that very fate, however, here are the Golden Flashes, in the NCAA super regional round for the first time in school history, and coming to Eugene this weekend to play Oregon for a spot in the College World Series.

Twelve months removed from a "heartbreaking" loss to Texas in the Golden Flashes' 11th regional appearance, and from losing their top two starters plus their closer to the draft, Kent State beat Kentucky twice and Purdue once to win a regional last week. The Golden Flashes open a three-game series against Oregon on Saturday at 8 p.m. in PK Park.

"When we lost last year in the regional final, it was heartbreaking," Kent State coach Scott Stricklin said. "It was really tough. It's been a long year thinking about it.

"If you were to ask me last year which team would have a chance to make a super regional, every one of us I think would have said that team. But that just speaks volumes about the kids we have - blue-collar, hard-working kids who have exceeded expectations."

Kent State's 2011 staff ace, Andrew Chafin, was selected with a compensatory first-round pick in last year's pro draft. Closer Kyle McMillen was taken in the fourth round, and 2011 Mid-American Conference pitcher of the year Kyle Hallock went in the 10th round.

And yet, starting pitching has improbably been Kent State's strength this season. David Starn, a seventh-round pick in this year's draft, will start Saturday against the Ducks, putting on the line a 10-3 record and 2.01 ERA, with 118 strikeouts in 107 2/3 innings.

As a third-year starter, Starn was the sure thing this season. More surprising have been contributions from Kent State's other two starters. Ryan Bores (9-2, 3.29), a junior college transfer who passed up a pro contract after being drafted last season, will start Sunday's second game, and Virginia transfer Tyler Skulina (11-2, 3.84) would start game three Monday, if Oregon and Kent State split the first two.

"We lost a lot of impact arms off last year's team," Stricklin said. "That was the big question mark coming in - could we have guys fill those shoes? And Ryan Bores and Tyler Skulina have been outstanding."

No more so than in the regional round. Starn started the opener against Kentucky, which lasted an incredible 21 innings, severely stressing each team's bullpen. Bores responded by throwing a complete game in the win over Purdue, and Skulina lasted seven innings to win his school-record 11th game in the regional final against Kentucky.

David Lyon, a four-year starter at catcher for Kent State, said the three starters present three vastly different styles. Starn is a lefty who relies on off-speed stuff, Bores uses on his sinker and slider to get groundball outs, and Skulina is the power arm of the group.

"Going from a soft lefty to a sinker-slider guy that's at 91 (mph) with a lot of sink, to a guy that's 6-5, 250 pounds and runs it up there at 96, that's a big change," Lyon said.

Stricklin calls Lyon "as good a defensive catcher as there is." In a rare responsibility for this level, Lyon calls pitches himself in most situations, rather than the coaching staff.

"It is unique in the college game, but that's the kind of leader he is," Stricklin said. "He's just outstanding."

Kent State's leadership as a whole was tested this season, Stricklin said, when the Golden Flashes played less than inspired baseball from the start. They still looked like a strong candidate to win their conference, but at the midway point there were few signs this would be the Kent State to break through in the postseason.

The low point came at Bowling Green in mid-April, when the Golden Flashes dropped two of three, their first MAC defeats of the season, to a team without a strong recent tradition. Since then, they've won 24 of 26, including a national-best 20 straight entering this weekend's super regional.

"Our seniors really took over the team, made sure our guys were doing the little things in practice," Stricklin said. "And we've just been really sharp and played good baseball ever since."

This weekend, that streak will go against an Oregon team that also swept through its regional in impressive fashion.

"I feel good about where our team is, but going all the way across the country to play a top-five team that's competed at such a high level in the Pac-12, it's a tough challenge," Stricklin said. "But we've got good baseball players who play hard and play with confidence. We'll be ready to play."

Said Lyon: "We're 54 outs away from Omaha. It's crazy to say that. I think everyone wants to get to Omaha so bad, we're going to be playing our hearts out. Even if we end up on the losing end, we're going to leave everything on the field."

BY THE NUMBERS

UO (45-17) KSU (44-17)

.268 BA .306

.360 OBP .383

.377 SLG .447

29 HR 42

3.02 ERA 3.48

.225 BAA .248

417/223 K/BB 508/215
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Title Annotation:Baseball Oregon; A rebuilt staff helped break the Golden Flashes' long-running NCAA suffering
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Jun 6, 2012
Words:907
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