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Ducks set for Kent State; Beavers enthusiastic about next year

Pat Casey was up at 4:57 a.m. Tuesday morning, 12 hours after the Oregon State baseball team arrived in Corvallis from the long flight home from Baton Rouge, La., following elimination from the NCAA tournament.

For the next three hours, OSU's 18th-year coach read the newspaper, penned a checklist of duties to perform during the day, formulated an agenda for the day's coaches' meeting, perused early results from the major league draft, looked into his players' academic records as spring term nears an end and compiled a list of where they will play their summer ball.

'It's the only time of day where there is not a lot of motion and phone calls and emails and texts,' Casey says.

Then it was on to mass service at 8 a.m. - for Casey, a daily staple - and back in the office at 9 a.m. to continue a full day of all the things a Pac-12 coach at the end of a long season.

In Eugene, Oregon's George Horton had a full plate Tuesday, too, but with a spot in the College World Series still in his sights.

After winning a home regional, only a best-of-three super regional against underdog Kent State this weekend at PK Park stands between the Ducks and a trip to Omaha.

The Golden Flashes (44-17) out of the Mid-American Conference are one of the Cinderella stories of the tournament so far, vanquishing Kentucky (twice) and Purdue and advancing as the No. 3 seed to a super regional for the first time in school history.

Kent State, which has won 20 games in a row, hits .306 as a team and has a formidable pitching staff led by senior left-hander David Starn (10-3, 2.01), junior right-hander Ryan Bores (9-2, 3.29) and sophomore right-hander Tyler Skulina (11.2, 3.84) and reliever Brian Clark, a freshman left-hander, (4-0, 0.69, four saves, .141 opponents' batting average).

The quality pitching isn't a surprise to Horton. He considered Kent State pitching coach Mike Birkbeck - who pitched 54 games with the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets from 1986-95 - when replacing UO pitching coach Dave Checketts last summer.

Birkbeck 'is one of the nation's finest developers of pitchers,' Horton says.

'I don't think it's a major upset (the Golden Flashes) won a regional,' the UO coach adds. 'They have been knocking on the door to go to the College World Series for years. They are an excellent pitching-and-defense program.'

Oregon is, too. And the Ducks have the luxury of playing at home in the super regional that begins Saturday.

'The home confines are a major advantage,' Horton says. "You don't have to travel, you know the quirks of the field and the mound, and you have the positive energies from the crowd.'

Horton gives the PK Park throng credit for its part in Oregon's controversial 6-5 win over Austin Peay in last Friday's regional opener, the game in which a ninth-inning missed out call by the plate umpire opened the door for the Ducks' comeback victory.

'The crowd won that game for us,' the UO coach says. 'Yeah, we got the call, but we got back our personality because of the fans. They clicked us in for the rest of the weekend.'

Kent State also advanced with a disputed call on a three-run, eighth-inning home run in Sunday's 3-2 win over Kentucky that replays showed did not clear the chain-link fence. That came after nipping the Wildcats 7-6 in 21 innings on Friday.

The Golden Flashes now travel nearly 2,500 miles to Eugene knowing they are not the same team away from home. They own a 27-3 record at home or at neutral sites but are only 17-14 for away games this season.

Oregon State (40-20) won 40 games for the second season in a row and the fifth time in eight years, but didn't achieve its goal of a first CWS berth since winning the national crown for the second straight time in 2007.

The four Pac-12 teams that were host schools for the regionals (Oregon, UCLA, Arizona and Stanford) advanced to the super regionals. The only tournament team not to advance was Oregon State, which tied for fourth place in the conference after sweeping Oregon on the final regular-season weekend but was sent to arguably the toughest place in college baseball to play.

'Seems like the decisions were made before the final weekend,' Casey muses. 'We played really well at the end of the season in one of the best conferences, and when you get sent to the No. 1 team in the country (in Louisiana State), that's a tough draw.

'But we created part of our own problems by not winning a game or two we should have had along the way. Our kids learned a lesson, how razor thin the margin is between being able to play at home (in the NCAA tournament) or not. Had we hosted (a regional), we'd still be playing.'

Sunday's emotional 6-5, 10-inning loss to LSU left the Beavers heartbroken, but Casey was happy with the effort and performance other than Saturday's 7-1 loss to the Tigers.

'We didn't play well that game,' he says, 'but the other three, we competed as well as we've competed all year long. We battled. We had (the Tigers) beat in the fourth game but just couldn't finish. I was proud of our guys. We didn't win the game, but we outcompeted them, I'll tell you that.'

OSU coaches were thrilled with the performance of sophomore Scott Schultz, who came on in the first inning with a 3-0 deficit and pitched three-hit ball, allowing one earned run with no walks and nine strikeouts over 8 2/3 innings.

'That's as good an outing as I've seen by a member of our staff since I've been at Oregon State,' says associate head coach Marty Lees, in his 11th year as Casey's chief assistant.

'Halfway through the year, Scott got tired of getting knocked around and changed his physical preparation and mental approach,' Casey says. 'He flat dominated (LSU). The last half of the year, he was outstanding.'

Casey says he doesn't think anything is seriously wrong with the left arm of freshman Jace Fry, who exited Friday's 2-1 win against Belmont with arm tightness in the sixth inning. Nor does the OSU coach think left fielder Michael Conforto - the Pac-12 freshman of the year and RBI king - will have lingering effects from a shin injury that bothered him the final month of the season.

'He fouled a ball off the shin and also had shin splints,' Casey says. 'He played on sheer guts the last 10 games. It just needs a chance to heal.'

Oregon State loses three senior starters in catcher Ryan Gorton, second baseman John Tommasini and third baseman Ryan Dunn, and will have to wait to see if juniors Matt Boyd (relief pitcher) or Tyler Smith (shortstop) depart after the major league draft. Boyd, taken by Cincinnati in the 13th round, seems the most likely to go.

Returning are veteran position players Conforto, Jake Rodriguez, Kavin Keyes, Danny Hayes, Ryan Barnes, Joey Matthews, Max Gordon and Dylan Davis and nearly the entire pitching staff, including Davis, the freshman right-hander who hit 100 miles per hour on the radar gun this spring and 'is a legitimate two-way guy,' according to Casey.

The Beavers have seven infielders in their 2012 recruiting class, including Andy Peterson from Santa Ana (Calif.) College, 'who could play anywhere in the infield or outfield for us,' Casey says.

Some could sign pro contracts, 'but that's the way it always is,' the OSU coach says. 'We'll have enough guys back, and enough new blood, that we know we could be really good next season.'

At least two of the OSU signees - infielder Zach Green from Sacramento (third round, Philadelphia) and pitcher Mason Felt of Dacula, Ga. (fifth round, Cincinnati) - seem likely to ink pro deals and never reach the Corvallis campus.

Conforto and pitcher Dan Child are ticketed for duty with Team USA this summer, and Rodriguez and Keyes - along with Smith and Boyd, if they don't go pro - are lined up to play in the prestigious Cape Cod League.

The declaration date for players to decide whether to sign or go to college has been moved up to July 13. Casey wishes he could get started with practice the following day in preparation for the 2013 campaign.

'I'm excited about next season, I can tell you that,' he says.