Feb. 19, 2011
By Jon Cooper
There’s been a special game-within-a-game taking place all weekend at Russ Chandler Stadium during the Georgia Tech-Kent State series. (Tech goes for the sweep tomorrow, with first pitch scheduled for 1:00 p.m.)
“It’s mixed emotions for me,” said Hall, who is beginning his 18th season on The Flats. “Obviously you want to win but at the same time you’re happy for the other guy to be in a position to be a Division I head coach and have a great program that he’s running. I wouldn’t say it’s a lot of fun just because, obviously, we want to win. But at the same time you don’t take a lot of gratitude in beating somebody you know, somebody that’s played for you and worked for you. “
“It is emotional for all of us,” agreed Stricklin, in his seventh season at Kent State. “We’re all very competitive and certainly no one wants to lose in this series. We’re all very close, we’re all very good friends, there’s a lot of respect going back and forth but at the end of the day we want to win for our teams and our programs.”
Both programs are among the elite in College Baseball, as Georgia Tech, which enters the season ranked No. 19, is a perennial NCAA Tournament participant, having been there 15 times. Kent State isn’t as well known but is starting to ascend there, as under Stricklin, they have been to three NCAA Tournaments won three Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournaments and two regular season conference titles.
Kent, however, owes much of its current status to Hall, as he was Head Coach at from 1988 through 1994. In that time, he led the Golden Flashes to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 1992 and ’93. Leading Hall’s squads those two seasons was All-Conference catcher Scott Stricklin.
“Coach Stricklin was instrumental in us turning our program around,” Hall said. “When I went to Kent, they’d never really won anything. I’m not bragging, but just being honest. The first two years there was just a case of getting players that I wanted in the program. Then Stricklin came along. He was our No. 1 catcher on two Mid-American Conference Championship teams. I know full well had we not won those championships, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity that I have today to coach at a place like Georgia Tech.”
Hall’s point is proven by his being hired by Georgia Tech after the ’93 season.
Stricklin played professionally in the Tampa Bay Rays, Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves’ farm systems, then joined Hall’s staff from 2002-04, where he was assistant coach/recruiting coordinator. Hall credits Stricklin for the recruiting of catcher Matt Wieters. In 2005, Stricklin came home, taking the reins at Kent, where he has been ever since.
“He has done a tremendous job,” said Hall. “He told me this is the best team he’s ever had there and there have been some awfully good teams with some awfully good players. For him to tell me this is the best team he’s ever had then this has got to be a really good team that he’s bringing in.”
Stricklin returns the credit to his teacher.
“We’ve got a great tradition and that goes back to when Coach Hall and Coach (Rick) Rembielak were head coaches,” he said. “Our first championship at Kent State was in 1992, that was our first championship in 28 years. Since 1992 we’ve won 17 championships. So it kind of started with Coach Hall, Coach Rembielak took over the reins, and continued to win and we’ve just been able to keep up that tradition. We’ve been able to be consistent, have a very good program and, again, that started with Coach Hall.”
As Stricklin alluded, the winning started by Hall continued during Rembielak’s 11 seasons (1994 through 2004).
This weekend’s Kent Coaches’ reunion is special for Rembielak, who bridged the Hall and Stricklin eras.
“I know it was really emotional for me, for being out of the game for a year, it was just emoional for me being back on the field,” he said. “It was kind of ironic that it was against Kent State as part of Georgia Tech’s staff. To see Mike Birkbeck, he was my pitching coach for seven years with me up there and Scottie, who played for Coach Hall and I, to play them on Opening Day at Georgia Tech, my first year back, it was kind of unique.
“There’s an attachment there,” he added about Kent. “I have fond memories, I had great years there with Coach Hall, with us there, and then after he left, I think we had nine championships there. So there’s a huge attachment. Come game day you separate that but certainly there’s going to be a fond spot in my heart for Kent. I’ve had great memories there, great years.”
Making new memories this weekend came about by chance.
Stricklin recalled the conversation with Hall.
“Two years ago we settled on this,” said Stricklin. “[Hall] had an open weekend and we were talking about something else and he brought it up. When the season got expanded by a week, obviously we both had open weekends. So that’s how that came about.”
Hall remembered a little more about the conversation.
“After we basically agreed to play each other, [Stricklin] goes, ‘I think it will be the best team that I’ve ever had.’ Then, ‘Oh, by the way, the pitcher that we’ll throw on Friday night, I think is a first-round pick,'” said Hall with a laugh. “So that’s kind of how that went.”
While Stricklin denied that he “sprung” his team and ace (Andrew Chafin) on Hall — the series had been scheduled two years ago — he didn’t deny that this team has potential, even though Chafin may not appear in the series.
“That’s been embellished just a little bit,” he said. “When we talked in the fall, I kind of did say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this kid that’s pretty good, but unfortunately that’s one of our guys that’s on the shelf. Andrew may pitch on Sunday in relief. We’re just going to be cautious with him. But yeah, we did have that conversation in the fall and I did kind of tell him, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a guy who is pretty good,’ but I’d feel a whole lot better if he was 100 percent healthy.”
Stricklin feels his team has been further hamstrung as these three games were the first time his team was actually able to do anything outside.
“Our guys have not had spikes on their feet yet. So the first pop-up that we see will be in batting practice [Friday],” he said. “We’re behind a little bit when it comes to that but we also have a veteran group. On the other side of the coin, Georgia Tech will be playing a lot of freshmen. Hopefully that evens out the aspect of being indoors a little bit.”
As far as going head-to-head with Hall, both feel that’s a wash.
“I think it kind of evens out,” said Stricklin. “Obviously, I know him very well and he knows me very well.”
So does the master still have some tricks up his sleeve to teach the pupil?
“I don’t know about that,” said Hall with a laugh. “He’ll just try to do whatever he can to win each game and we’ll be trying to do the same. I fully expect it to be a great series.”