The 26th victory in that successful run — a 4-2 win over Alabama in Sunday’s clinching game of the Tallahassee, Fla., regional — was a monumental one for the program and sent the Owls to a super regional for the first time as a Division I program.
Now, Kennesaw State (40-22)
will look to continue its season at Louisville (48-15), in a best-of-three series that begins Friday night at 6:30 p.m. Game 2 is slated for Saturday at 7 p.m., with a potential third game Sunday at 6 p.m.
The first two games will be televised on ESPNU, with the third set for ESPN2.
The winner of the series will advance to play in the College World Series beginning June 14 in Omaha, Neb.
“It’s been an unbelievable run,” said Kennesaw State coach Mike Sansing, who has been at the Owls’ reins since 1991. “I’m really proud of the players. We played some good baseball leading up to the (Atlantic Sun) conference tournament. We played well in the conference tournament and we played well in the regional.
“It’s a goofy group of guys who are getting it done. As a coach, you kind of have a vision of everything coming into form, but to see it actually come to fruition is good for me to see. The team is showing a lot of confidence right now.”
Confidence was in short supply when Kennesaw State fell to 13-18 overall after losing two of three games in a series with A-Sun rival Jacksonville. But over time, the Owls’ confidence level changed amidst a myriad of factors.
“It hasn’t been any one thing,” Sansing said. “We talked at the midterm of the season and graded ourselves. We talked about what we could do to fix things, and the guys did that. Our batting average went up and our pitching (improved). We had a plan, and it worked.”
Center fielder Bo Way said the team’s confidence was boosted with a regular-season series against Florida Gulf Coast, in which Kennesaw State lost two games before winning the finale.
“We lost the series,” Way said, “but we already showed we could beat the big teams, and to hang with the No. 1 team in the conference helped.”
Catcher Max Pentecost, the Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year and a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s top amateur player, also had an idea behind the Owls’ streak.
“We just started having fun,” he said. “We spent more time together and played more relaxed. We enjoyed things more and our outcomes were better.”
The biggest reason for the change in results, however, may have come from volunteer assistant coach Trey Fowler.
“Coach Fowler is a big (professional) wrestling freak,” said pitcher Travis Bergen, the most valuable player of the Tallahassee Regional. “He pushed us back to our childhood and reminded us how we watched wrestling on Monday night, and he brought out this championship belt.”
The belt was Bergen’s on Friday, after he pitched all but one out in the Owls’ shutout of Alabama to open the regional. It then went to Nathan Harsh after his 4 2/3 innings of relief in an 11-inning win over Georgia Southern, and then back to the one who originated the new tradition, Fowler.
“The guy who stepped up during a game got to wear the belt,” Bergen said. “It’s been a big deal for us. We all try to play hard, and the belt takes the edge off. We all think it’s cool, and we all try to get the most title reigns. It’s a big deal, and it’s something that makes us go.”
Sansing agreed that the belt has helped.
“That wrestling belt’s been around for about eight weeks now,” he said. “It started out as a small belt from Walmart or something, and at the end of a game, a player would get to wear it. The players really got into it. (Fowler) brought out a real (replica) belt for the conference tournament, and we keep it in the dugout during games. Maybe the motivation (for winning) is for the belt.”
Once the streak started, there was also motivation to keep that going, too.
“The streak has helped build our confidence,” Bergen said. “We’re finding different ways to get the job done. We feel like we’re never out of it.”
That could be the case against Louisville, considering Kennesaw State’s confidence level. The Owls are used to being the underdog, even if they have wins over Georgia Tech, Georgia and Alabama this season.
“Whatever way we’re labeled is fine with us,” Sansing said. “We understand how this works based on our history. Ours in Division I is short, but it’s not something we think about.”
Pentecost and his teammates will also have something to think about Thursday, the first day of Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft.
Pentecost, who is widely considered a first-round draft pick, was originally going to spend time with teammates and family in metro Atlanta during the draft. Now, he and his teammates will be in Louisville, preparing for Game 1 of the super regional.
“I talked to Max about that in Tallahassee,” Sansing said. “I told him there’s a chance we don’t party (in Atlanta). He said, ‘I hope so.’ Maybe we’ll be at a hotel or a restaurant, but we’ll sit down and figure it all out soon.”
Kennesaw State became the first team since 1993 to win a Division I regional in its first attempt, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have any postseason experience.
The Owls had a history with national tournament runs on the NAIA and NCAA Division II levels, winning a pair of national titles in 1994 and ’96.
“Hopefully, some of the things we learned as coaches can help us,” he said. “Hopefully, I can share those events and our history in the ’90s with these guys.”