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Rough start to season for Stony Brook baseball

Stony Brook starting pitcher Brandon McNitt delivers against

Stony Brook starting pitcher Brandon McNitt delivers against Florida State in the first inning. (June 17, 2012) Credit: AP

Stony Brook and Kent State each finished the 2012 college baseball season among the elite teams in a sport long dominated by programs in the South and West.

Those two northern teams are far from the top of the game so far in 2013.

In fact, Stony Brook is close to the bottom after having its lineup gutted by a player exodus to professional baseball.

Seawolves coach Matt Senk knew it would be a long shot for his team to duplicate the magic that carried it to the College World Series for the first time. But he never imagined this: The Seawolves opened with nine straight losses and are 9-18 heading into this weekend's America East series at Albany.

"If last year was in many respects the perfect storm of talent and experience to get us to the College World Series, this has been kind of the reverse perfect storm," Senk said Thursday from his office on Long Island.

Things aren't quite as dire 500 miles to the west at Kent State, but the Golden Flashes also have been less than dazzling in the encore to their first CWS trip.

Kent State (12-14) has won 10 of its last 14 after a 2-10 start and is flirting with .500 going into a Mid-American Conference series against Ohio. Flashes coach Scott Stricklin attributed the slow start to playing one of the nation's most challenging early schedules, wintry weather that has kept the team indoors for all but seven practices and players who struggled while getting every opponent's best shot.

"Coaching staffs always knew that we were a good, solid team. Players didn't necessarily know that," Stricklin said. "This year when we opened with Virginia Tech and UNC-Wilmington, they were well aware of what we did last year and they were ready to play us."

Stony Brook was one of the feel-good stories last year in college sports. The ballclub with the catchy nickname was adopted as the hometown favorite for the CWS. The Seawolves made it to Omaha, Neb., after winning a regional at Coral Gables and stunning LSU in a three-game super regional in Baton Rouge, La.

Souvenir tents around TD Ameritrade Park and local sporting goods stores sold out of Seawolves gear even before Stony Brook played its first game as the first CWS qualifier from the Northeast since 1986.

The Seawolves lasted only two games, losing by a combined 21-3 to UCLA and Florida State. But they finished with a school-record 52 wins, had the co-national player of the year in Travis Jankowski and had five of their seven draft picks taken in the first 12 rounds.

They also ranked in the top 10 nationally in seven offensive categories, including batting average, hits and runs scored.

This season, Stony Brook entered the month of April 272nd in batting (.228), 283rd in scoring (3.1) and no higher than 113th in any offensive statistic. The Seawolves are No. 222 out of 296 in RPI.

Injuries to two of the Seawolves' three freshman All-Americans have compounded the problems. Catcher Kevin Krause hasn't played since the third game and shortstop Cole Peragine missed six games. The other star freshman from a year ago, Steve Goldstein, is batting .157 compared with .337 last season.

Stony Brook, like Kent State, played a challenging early schedule. The Seawolves were swept by top-ranked North Carolina, losing the first two games 11-2 and 7-1. They led the third game by a run in the bottom of the ninth inning before losing 9-8.

They've been shut out five times, and they lost their last game 12-6 to Marist after committing a season-high six errors.

The starting pitching has been solid but not enough to overcome the lack of offensive production. Frankie Vanderka pitched his second career no-hitter last month against Fordham and is 4-2 with a 1.42 ERA.

Kent State is playing much better than it was early. The Flashes committed 30 errors in their first 12 games in what Stricklin called some of the poorest defensive play he had ever witnessed.

Stricklin, who has six everyday players back from last season, said some of them were consumed by the pressure of high expectations.

"I don't think it's a stretch to say we played a little bit tight early on," Stricklin said.

The Flashes played perhaps their best game of the season on Wednesday when freshman Nick Jensen-Clagg allowed one hit over seven innings in a 10-0, error-free victory over Penn State.

They also have discovered an ace in Taylor Williams, who started his career at Washington State before moving to a junior college last year and winding up in Kent, Ohio.

Williams, who mixes his 95-mph fastball with a change-up and curve, has struck out 45 and walked just six in 52 innings.

"We knew he would be good. We didn't foresee this," Stricklin said.

Shortstop Sawyer Polen has provided a spark offensively, leading the Flashes with a .347 average after batting .278 with a team-high 58 strikeouts last season.

The Flashes aren't overly stressed about their start. A year ago they were 11-12 in late March and then rolled off wins in 36 of 44 games to finish 47-20.

"Our goal is to be really good in late May and early June, and that's what we did last year," Stricklin said.

Stony Brook has more ground to make up than Kent State, but Senk isn't giving up on this season.

"We're only halfway through and still have 21 conference games to play," he said. "We feel like we can get to where we should be offensively, and our guys will continue to pitch. It's always about how you finish rather than how you start. We know that better than anybody."

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