Zips Vs. Flashes: Could this be Akron's year?
When one thinks about the University of Akron and sports the first one that typically comes to mind is basketball. The Zips have been arguably the top program in the MAC making the finals seven years in a row until this year.
When you think about the other sports the next two are either the soccer team which is one of the best in the nation, and a recent national champion. Or it’s the football team in its new stadium and with their woeful performance the past few years as one of the worst teams in division one football.
I would be shocked if anyone thought about the baseball team. The baseball team hasn’t been as disappointing as the football team had been, but it has been a long, bad run for the baseball Zips. If you’re a fan please stick with me I do have some positive news, but first the rather dark history.
The Zips have made the NCAA tournament once way back in 1996, which was the last time they won the MAC championship. Over the last 12 years the Zips have managed two seasons with a winning record, one year one game over the other two. They have not had a .500 record in the MAC in the last 12 years.
In terms of their players and pro baseball, the Zips have had 17 players drafted and two have reached the majors. The University of Akron has accumulated 95 total games in the majors. The last player taken in the top 500 players was in 2003. The last player taken in the top 10 rounds was 2000. The highest drafted player was taken at pick 104 in the fourth round back in 1983 - there were others technically taken higher but they were not in the June draft. In their entire history they have had three players taken in the top 10 rounds; as a comparison Kent State had two in the top 10 rounds just last year and have had multiple years of having three top 10 picks.
The best player in Akron history in terms of major league production is Mike Birkbeck who pitched in 54 games over parts of six seasons in the majors. The other player to make the majors was Mark Malaska who pitched two years in the majors.
Mike Birkbeck is a name that has to bother Zips fans. He is the biggest player in the history of the program and is now the pitching coach at Kent State. Birkbeck is quite possibly the best assistant coach in college baseball. If he had any interest in being a head coach he could have been at many points. He was offered the Kent State job, but has no interest in moving or doing anything other than just staying in Kent and being the pitching coach.
So finally the good news for Akron. Things have been looking up as the Zips have a chance to finish above .500 in the MAC for the first time in over a decade. While it might not be the great jump for them it had seemed a few weeks ago when Akron was second but still as of now Akron is now .500 for the season and a hair under .500 in the MAC. This season has a chance to be the best the Zips have had in the last decade.
The man helming this turnaround is head coach Rick Remielak. Remielak is an interesting story in this rivalry as he was the head coach at Kent State for 11 years taking them to the NCAA regional four times. He left to go coach at Wake Forest, but after five seasons was let go. He was scooped up by Akron and after finishing second from the bottom two straight years is now moving the team up to the middle of the pack.
The other way Akron can get better is to have players drafted. Kids now more than ever know about which teams put guys into the draft and more importantly into the majors. As mentioned before, the Zips have struggled to put guys in the draft, but this year there is one player who might help change things.
Devan Ahart is an athlete in centerfield who just fills up a stat sheet. His line this year is .319/.422/.429. He has a near 2:1 BB to strikeout ratio, 22 stolen bases, and 10 extra base hits. I tend to look for guys who walk more than strikeout in college, just because that ratio tends to get worse each level a player jumps up to. I see a player with plus speed, a good eye at the plate, and a nice quick swing. I may be off base, but I see a guy who should go in the top five rounds. The MAC puts several players into the draft each year and Ahart has a chance to be the first MAC player selected.
So Zip fans keep heart, and if the Zips can upset the mighty Flashes of Kent State this weekend, we could see the emergence of another very good baseball school in Ohio, and a rivalry which will be fun for all baseball fans in the Northeast.
Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeffmlbdraft, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org