Even in its relative home base, Kennesaw State is viewed as a small and distant planet in the college athletics universe.
It’s not really in Atlanta. It’s somewhere off an interstate, north of the Big Chicken and south of Clemson.
It’s not in the SEC or the ACC or one of those other conferences that aspires to conquer the NCAA and possibly Eastern Europe.
It’s just cute little Kennesaw State, with cute little sports programs, prompting the average Georgia or Georgia Tech fan to pat them on the head and say, “You have uniforms and everything? That’s nice. Now run along and play.”
They are. Maybe better.
“This baseball field was basically farmland,” the school’s baseball coach, Mike Sansing, said Tuesday as he pointed out a window from an athletic complex. “It wasn’t graded or anything. They just put up a fence and made some dugouts and that was it. Cornell came down for a game once and there’s a picture of players sitting on a hay bale. They must’ve thought, ‘What’s going on here?’”
Which is what everybody’s thinking now.
The Rise of the Lilliputians in Georgia continues. Mercer provided this state with its lone NCAA tournament entry, then knocked off Duke and was adopted by the other 49 states. Georgia State also had a remarkable run in basketball before losing in overtime in the Sun Belt tournament final to fall just short of the NCAA.
Kennesaw State’s mid-major major moment didn’t come on a basketball court but rather a baseball field. The Owls, who ascended from Division II only in 2006 and were playing in their first NCAA postseason since, won a regional in Tallahassee that included heavyweights Alabama and Florida State.
Next up: Louisville, for a best-of-three super regional.
The winner advances to the College World Series.
The Owls had a record of 14-20 in late March. Then they won 16 straight and 26 of 28.
Is the room spinning?
This is a significant moment, not just for the baseball program (which achieved significant success at the NAIA and NCAA Division II levels) but for an ambitious athletic department. New facilities are going up and football begins in two seasons with an on-campus stadium (as Georgia State looks on with envy).
“462 days to the first game,” athletic director Vaughn Williams said by phone late Monday night. He read it on the school’s website.
When asked where Kennesaw State fits in the Atlanta-Athens landscape, Williams said, “We don’t feel like the forgotten child here. We can find our own space. We’re seeing that in baseball, golf, track, tennis, volleyball. But we talk about that mid-major space. That should be our space.”
The Owls’ regional win had a Mercer-Duke feel to it. How many people in Tallahassee didn’t even know where Kennesaw State was?
“A lot,” pitcher Travis Bergen said.
“We were seeing stuff on Twitter from fans. They didn’t know who we were or where we were from. But by the end I think they figured it out.”
The final 4-2 victory against Alabama was one of those special college sports moments, the kind that won’t be possible if the major five conferences (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific 12) advance to Armageddon and break away from the NCAA. Consider the budgetary differences between Alabama, Florida State and Kennesaw State, according to the Equity in Athletics database:
— Alabama’s total athletic department team revenue: $143,393,059. Baseball expenses: $812,874.
— Florida State’s revenue: $89,145,159. Baseball expenses: $975,449.
— Kennesaw State’s revenue: $12,298,586. Baseball expenses: $198,602.
Sansing does have one advantage at Kennesaw State. Georgia, in general, and Cobb County, in particular, is ground zero for youth baseball. So he can settle for players who don’t turn pro out of high school or aren’t picked off by Georgia and Georgia Tech and still come out with talent. It’s one reason he has been able to win at every level, taking Kennesaw State to the NAIA World Series in 1994 and winning the Division II championship in ‘96.
None of the four players at a news conference Tuesday said they had big-school options. “I was a little guy in high school so I didn’t have a lot of opportunities,” pitcher Justin McCalvin said.
Sometimes, stars develop anyway. Catcher Max Pentecost, who’s hitting .423 with a .631 slugging percentage, is expected to be drafted in the first round of Thursday’s amateur baseball draft. Sansing had planned to have a draft party for him. But then winning happened. Nobody’s upset about the party cancellation.
“This has been something special,” Sansing said.
He became convinced in late April, when the Owls made it 11 in a row. The team blew a 7-3 lead when East Tennessee State had a five-run ninth, and two KSU outfielders collided on a fly ball and left the game
“It was a terrible collision — like a car crash,” Sansing said.
But the Owls rallied in the bottom of the ninth to win 9-8.
“That was when I felt this team had it going,” he said.
The team now carries a championship wrestling belt to each game. It’s awarded to their chosen player of the game.
The belt doesn’t say Kennesaw State anywhere on it. But by now everybody should know where it belongs.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.