After defeating Alabama 4-2 in a title-winning clash Monday, the Owls punched their ticket to super regional for the first time in the team’s nine-year history as a Division I program.
KSU will travel to Louisville for the super regional, which begins Friday. The eight teams that survive their best-of-three matchups in the super regionals will advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., which begins June 14.
“It would be a tremendous accomplishment for any program to get to the World Series, being the top eight in the county,” said coach Mike Sansing, who’s led the Kennesaw State baseball team since 1991. “It would be no different for our guys.”
Sansing and his players expressed confidence in the team’s ability to reach Omaha.
“We’re a hot team right now, and anything can happen in the tournament,” said freshman infielder Cornell Nixon, a Lassiter High School alumnus.
“We are really excited because we know we have an excellent chance to win.”
Nixon said the crowd of Owls fans in Tallahassee boosted his team’s spirit as Kennesaw State clinched their victory — and he only expects support to grow heading into the super regionals this weekend.
“I feel like we’re going to have a good crowd there,” he said of the upcoming tournament. “I know we have a lot of supporters.”
Players and coaches said fans gathered on campus to welcome the Owls home from Florida late Monday night.
“As soon as we got there, a bunch of people congratulated us and greeted us,” Nixon said. “(There were) hugs and kisses all around.”
Kennesaw State ascended to Division I for the 2005-06 school year, but this season marks the first time the baseball team advanced to the Division I tournament.
Assistant athletic director Scott Whitlock, the university’s former longtime softball coach, noted the Owls were not eligible for postseason play until 2010, after completing a four-year transitional period for new Division I teams.
Catcher Max Pentecost, a junior, said he was most excited about putting Kennesaw State front and center in the world of college sports.
“I feel like, without us having football, we get overlooked, just in sports in general,” Pentecost explained.
“Really, the best thing was putting our name out there. Showing that, even in the state of Georgia, where you’ve got (the University of) Georgia, Georgia Tech, we showed we can hang in there with them.”
Though Pentecost said fans have always rallied around the Owls, he noted Monday’s high-profile win has drawn even more supporters into the fold.
“We’ve had students texting us that didn’t really keep up with sports. And they see us on ESPN, and they’re like, ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool; way to put our name out there.’ So I think, the more we win, the more fans we’ll have,” he said.
Pitcher Justin McCalvin, also a junior, agreed that the community has rallied around the team as they’ve picked up momentum in the postseason.
“I don’t want to say there’ll be a bandwagon, but there will be a lot of people rooting for us,” he said.
Travis Bergen, the sophomore pitcher who helped seal Monday’s victory and was name the region’s most valuable player, said the number of fans in Florida indicated support may be swelling.
“I think we had more people there than we do at home games,” Bergen joked.
Whitlock admitted the string of recent wins has bolstered Kennesaw State’s image — though not just in terms of baseball.
“I think it’s transcended the sport itself,” said Whitlock, who has been at Kennesaw State since 1987. “This past couple weeks has brought a lot of attention to our university, our community and our area.
“This will help KSU as a university. It will help admissions. It will help ticket sales for all our sports.”
Some of the team’s success can be attributed to an unconventional idea floated by volunteer assistant coach Trey Fowler during a particularly tough stretch earlier in the season.
Fowler, a self-professed professional wrestling fan from an early age, said he was searching for a way to motivate his players when he decided to blend his love of baseball and his childhood passion. After pitching his idea to Sansing, who readily agreed, the coaching staff began offering a cheap, plastic wrestling belt to the best player in each game.
“The belt goes home with whoever we felt was the biggest contributor that day,” Fowler explained. “We’ve given that belt away to 20 different guys this year.”
Fowler said Kennesaw State was saddled with a 13-18 record when the belt competition began. Afterward, the Owls began a 16-straight winning streak — the longest in the nation this season.
“If we lose, unfortunately (the belt) has to go home with me,” Fowler clarified, “and the guys didn’t let the belt go home with me too often.”
Caric Martin, a Kennesaw State graduate, Athletic Association Board member and a baseball season-ticket holder, said more fans started jumping on board since the victory streak began.
“This has just been a fantastic year,” Martin said. “The success of the baseball team is going to put Kennesaw State in a favorable light nationally. It will help, not only with recruiting, but I think it will also help people with diplomas and make their diplomas more valuable.”
At the end of the day, however, the “tremendous” community response to Kennesaw State’s success is owed to the boys on the field and coaches on the sidelines, said athletic director Vaughn Williams.
“These are great young men, of high character, playing as a team,” Williams said. “And I think it really displays the power of unity, the power of belief and playing as a team.”
Williams said the social media attention — and being on ESPN — has created a positive energy he hopes to see continue into the fall, when classes resume. Fans like Jay Cunningham — who heads Superior Plumbing, a company that sponsors Kennesaw State athletics — only expect the Owls’ baseball profile to rise in coming years.
“I think what they’re building is only going to get better,” Cunningham said. “We’re just seeing the beginning of something big.”