Kennesaw State baseball coach Mike Sansing said getting the kids on campus has led to all the success the program has had in his 23 years at the helm.
“When we were an NAIA school, I felt like we were getting Division II talent,” he said. “When we were Division II, I thought we were getting Division I talent. Now, as a Division I program, we’re getting elite talent.”
That elite talent includes hot-hitting catcher Max Pentecost, who was drafted No. 11 in the first round of Thursday’s Major League Baseball draft by the Toronto Blue Jays, and it’s what’s helped the Owls finally get over the Division I hump.
After advancing to the Atlantic Sun championship game and losing the last two years, this was the year that the Owls finally won and earned their first trip to the NCAA tournament. They’ve since taken advantage of the opportunity by becoming the first team in more than 20 years to win a regional in its tournament debut, and tonight, they will play Louisville in the first game of a best-of-three series for the right to go to the College World Series.
“You have visions for your players,” said Sansing, who, at the beginning of the season, believed he had a team that could compete at the highest level if it’s pitching could fall into place. “To see some of that success coming though for the players is what is making this run special.”
Twenty-three years ago, it was another vision that brought Sansing to Kennesaw.
The 54-year-old had won more than 100 games at Shorter in his first three seasons as its coach, but he left the Rome college to come back to Cobb County, where he had previously served as a volunteer assistant at Southern Poly.
Administrators at what was then Kennesaw State College assured Sansing that they were in the process of taking the Owls’ athletic programs from NAIA to NCAA Division II.
“That’s why I came here,” he said.
After he was sold on the college’s vision, he then had to sell it to the players. In 1991, when he took over the six-year-old program, Sansing didn’t have much more to show them than the uniforms.
“There wasn’t much here,” he said. “There was the field and that’s about it. I think we had a few benches and some picnic tables behind home plate, but there wasn’t much there.”
In three years, Sansing led Kennesaw State to the NAIA national title, and he did it by mining Cobb and the other surrounding counties for talent.
“We’ve always had an opportunity to compete because of our area,” said Sansing who currently has a dozen players on the roster, including five from Cobb County — Cornell Nixon (Lassiter), Eric Britt (North Cobb), Justin Motley (Hillgrove), Jordan VerSteeg (Mount Paran Christian) and Gabe Friese (Marietta) — who grew up within 15 miles of campus. “It is so rich in high school and summer baseball.”
At the same time the Owls were winning the NAIA title, they were preparing for the move to Division II, building what’s now Stillwell Stadium and the eventual Bobbie Bailey Athletic Complex, which includes a state-of-the-art indoor batting and pitching facility.
“In the early ’90s, a lot of schools didn’t put an emphasis on baseball,” Sansing said. “In ’93, ’94 we got the stadium built.
“I look at it now and it’s unbelievable how much has changed.”
In 1996, the Owls won the Division II championship, and despite only being a member of the division for only half the decade, Baseball America still named Kennesaw State the best Division II program of the ’90s.
Before the 2006 season, Kennesaw State started the four-year transition to Division I. While some of the university’s other programs struggled during that time, the baseball team did not.
The Owls posted a 115-103 record during the transition with what Sansing said were some really good teams. In fact, two of the 2009 team’s best players — pitchers Chad Jenkins and Kyle Heckathorn — were selected on the first day of that year’s draft.
Now, only four years after the Division I transition was complete, Sansing has his team two wins away from challenging for another national title, in a third different classification.
By advancing to the super regional at Louisville, Sansing has become the first coach to win an NAIA title, an NCAA Division II title and take a team this far in Division I.
Over his 26-year career, Sansing has averaged 37 wins a season. His career record is 987-507, and during his successful run, Sansing has had many suitors call to see if he would be interested in leaving for a larger program.
Each time, Sansing said thanks, but no thanks.
“I’m a loyal guy, and Kennesaw State has been great to us,” he said. “They’ve been loyal. I’ve been loyal.”
And now, it might take a Nick Saban-sized contract to ever get Sansing to leave.
His Owls are No. 12 in the country. They’ve won 26 of their last 28 games and are on the cusp of the College World Series. And now, thanks to the national exposure during this run, players are now trying to find him.
“It’s been getting hot the last few weeks,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of publicity, and everybody is promoting KSU. It’s opening some doors that are allowing us to get in homes and talk to players.’
Two more wins and Sansing will get into any door he knocks on.
John Bednarowski is sports editor of the Marietta Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jbednarowski.