EUGENE, Ore.—Derek Toadvine raced around third base, sprinted down the line, slid across the plate and popped up immediately, throwing off his helmet and pumping his fists. In a heartbeat, he was engulfed in a sea of bright yellow-clad teammates behind home plate, leaping up and down euphorically.
For a while, it resembled a mosh pit more than a dogpile, and Kent State coach Scott Stricklin might have preferred it remain that way.
"I will say for the record: dogpiles scare me to death," Stricklin said later. "I'd like to stay on our feet to celebrate. As long as nobody gets hurt it's fine, but man, it scares me to death."
But after drifting further and further toward third base, the writhing mass of Golden Flashes finally collapsed into a heap—and Stricklin was right in the middle of it. For the first time in school history, Kent State had earned a trip to the College World Series thanks to a thrilling 3-2 win against Oregon, and Stricklin got overwhelmed by emotion just as his players did.
"I was on the top step, and I was trying to hold guys back, but I have to admit I went running out a little prematurely," he said. "I got in the middle of that one. I hadn't been in the middle of a dogpile since 1993, so I'm going to be a little sore tomorrow."
Stricklin's last dogpile 19 years ago came while he was a player at Kent State, but that team fell short of the CWS. This team, however, would not be denied.
A 21-inning marathon in the opener of the Gary Regional against Kentucky depleted Kent State's pitching staff and might have drained the team's energy, but the Golden Flashes simply came back the next day and beat top-seeded Purdue, then knocked off Kentucky again a day later.
The Golden Flashes needed center fielder Evan Campbell to make a heroic leaping catch with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning to preserve a one-run win in the opener of the Eugene Super Regional, so that's just what Campbell gave them.
The next day, Kent State watched a two-run lead evaporate in Oregon's three-run seventh inning. A lesser team might have been rattled and tentative the day after its 21-game winning streak was snapped, especially since it had held a two-run lead with the bases empty and just seven outs to go until Omaha.
But Kent State came out loose and confident again Monday, producing two runs on six hits over the first two innings to take control of the game from the outset. However, just as it had in the early innings a night earlier, Kent State failed to take advantage of an opportunity to break the game open in the second, managing to grab just one run from a bases-loaded, no-outs threat.
"It felt like last night all over again," Stricklin said. "Same score, 2-0. You knew they were going to come back. They have such a good team, such a good approach at the plate, you knew they were going to get some guys on base and manufacture some things."
And that's just what happened. Tyler Skulina held the Ducks scoreless on just two hits through 5 2/3 innings, just as Ryan Bores had held the Ducks scoreless on two hits through six innings Sunday. Oregon's inevitable rally came an inning later in Game Three than it had in Game Two, as the first two batters of the eighth inning reached safely against freshman lefty Brian Clark, then both scored on Ryon Healy's single through the right side of the infield.
"At first definitely it was disappointing, man—we were 6 outs away there, you could see the light at the end of the tunnel, then they come back and tie it up," KSU senior shortstop Jimmy Rider said. "But we've come from behind all year, and we were confident we could overcome it."
This time, Oregon couldn't get that third run across to take the lead, as Clark stranded the go-ahead run at second base in the eighth, then worked a 1-2-3 top of the ninth to give Kent State a chance for some walk-off heroics. But the Golden Flashes would have to earn it against electric Oregon closer Jimmie Sherfy, who had struck out each of the last four hitters he had faced—two on Sunday night, and two in the eighth inning Monday.
Toadvine started the ninth with a leadoff walk, then moved to second on Campbell's sacrifice bunt. Rider, the Mid-American Conference's all-time hits leader, followed with a flare into left field that looked harmless off the bat.
"I thought, 'Ugh, that's a sure out, a little looper. I wish I could have put more barrel on that and gotten it down the line or something,' " Rider said.
But Oregon left fielder Brett Thomas lost the ball in the sun for a just a moment, and Toadvine read it perfectly.
"First thing I thought about was tagging up, because I'd seen the third baseman go out and no one was covering third," Toadvine said. "Then I realized it was a shallow fly ball and everyone was going for it, so I got off the bag and took off. If they would have caught it they probably would have doubled me off, but I just trusted my instincts and I just took off."
Shortstop J.J. Altobelli got closest to the ball but couldn't reach it in time, and it deflected off him toward the wall, allowing Toadvine to score easily.
That set off the celebration behind home plate, and left the Golden Flashes at a loss for the right words to characterize the moment.
"I think everyone was just in shock . . . I just couldn't even describe the feeling—it was crazy," Rider said.
"To be at my alma mater as a head coach," Stricklin said, "and to take a team to Omaha, I wish I could find the words for you, but it's indescribable."
That's OK—the throng of exuberant men jumping for joy behind home plate said it all.
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