By Mike Lehman, TTU Sports Information
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. – How does one tell the story of one of the best baseball players in the history of the Ohio Valley Conference? A story about a career highly decorated and full of legendary moments that will live on as part of the best highlights of Tennessee Tech athletics history? A story that is still only beginning?
You let the young man, hailing from just a stone's throw south of Atlanta, tell you the story himself.
The future of the record books belonging to the OVC and Tennessee Tech may have never seen the sort of face lift they received if not for the 500th ranked player in the nation among the 2015 high school recruiting class. Slotted as the 60th overall recruit from the state of Georgia, Kevin Strohschein had a different path to take than most other players who boast a career resume like his, one that led to him to becoming one of the most revered hitters in the country.
"A guy involved with my summer ball team in high school knew [Tech head coach – and former assistant coach at the time – Justin] Holmes in college. He just sent him a text that basically said 'I know a guy that doesn't have a spot he really likes to play yet. Can you take a look at him or have him come up to your camp?' I came up to a camp and Holmes offered me right after that."
A pitcher as well during his high school days, Strohschein made it very clear that hitting was his passion, something he proved on a daily basis throughout his four-year career in Cookeville.
"Some JUCOs and smaller schools were saying I could play both ways. Some of the other D1s were more like, 'You can pitch if you want to, here.' They all knew, but the ones that liked me as a pitcher too, I was like 'I'll pitch if you want me to, but I gotta hit.'"
He played like it too. Strohschein managed 362 hits in 236 games in the purple and gold, a number good enough to not only obliterate the Tech career record and break the OVC mark by a solid margin, but also rank him in the top 10 in the history of NCAA Division I baseball. And it all started with his very first collegiate at bat.
"I just remember that I was really nervous. The guy threw me a fastball in the dirt, which I never really swing at, and I check swung at that one for the first strike. I was like, 'What am I doing?' And then he just threw one middle away and I got the barrel to it. I probably would have swung at anything he threw at that point."
And Golden Eagle fans couldn't be more happy that he did. The swing resulted in a grand slam, the perfect beginning to a career defined by everything involved in the feat itself.
"The wind was blowing out that day, I remember, pretty good, and I hit it well, so I knew right away it was going out. I didn't pimp it or anything. You know, first one. I didn't feel like I could. I just remember sprinting around the bases and hurting [former assistant coach Derek] Weldon's and Coach Holmes' hands from high-fiving them so hard. I was so excited! I was thinking, 'Yeah, I can probably do this now.'"
His numbers proved it after a quick start that first weekend, but some struggles at the plate led to a dip in his batting average that had him scratching his head. The number reached its lowest point of .242 in mid-March, but a key adjustment in his swing turned everything around.
"Coach Holmes actually made a few mechanical tweaks and got in the cages with me. And it kind of just took off from there. I don't know. It was a really quick fix and then I just took off. I still tweak it every now and then, but it's still one of the principles I check for when I'm in the cages."
It was a slow climb over the next few weeks, all until a trip to Hunstville, Ala. for a match-up with Alabama A&M. Perhaps the best, single-game performance in Tech history, Strohschein showed off his new swing in style, breaking three program records by himself and helping the team set several more. Leading the Golden Eagles to a 34-6 victory, the young slugger finished 6-for-6 with nine RBI, six runs scored, a triple and a grand slam.
"That was crazy. I'd never been a part of anything like that, outside of travel ball against really bad teams, maybe. That was wild. I remember that was pretty much right after I made my adjustment, or about the week after I had gone through it. It gave me a little chance to work on it some more. I felt like that really propelled me for the rest of the year and made me feel good with my swing."
And propel him it did. Slashing .393/.447/.707 with 90 hits, 21 doubles, 15 home runs, and 73 RBI led to an accomplishment never before attained in OVC history. Strohschein was named both OVC Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year, sharing the latter honor with Eastern Kentucky's Mandy Alvarez. He was the first freshman ever named OVC Player of the Year.
"I was surprised. Mandy Alvarez had a really good year. I thought he'd probably win it outright. I thought I had come a little short. I was definitely surprised. My step dad was the only one who could make it, and I just remember hearing him go nuts. That was pretty cool for me. I remember how excited he was."
That was just the stepping stone for the highest honor still to come. The young man, affectionately known as "Stroh" or "the Stroh Show" by the Tech faithful, would go on to earn five freshman All-American honors and a pair of full All-American honors, but it was Collegiate Baseball newspaper that really showed just how good he already was. The publication named Strohschein the Louisville Slugger National Co-Freshman Player of the Year, an honor shared with Clemson's Seth Beer.
"I actually know Seth a little bit. It was pretty cool. He's always been a great player. He's always been the hyped-up guy. It was cool to tie him, being a way smaller-time recruit. I had to work a lot harder than him, I felt like, so that was pretty cool."
With so many accomplishments and records and numbers, it can be easy to see why things weren't as easy in Strohschein's second turn through the OVC and college baseball. The reigning OVC Player of the Year struggled early on during his sophomore campaign. He rebounded to finish with a very respectable .292 average with 60 RBI, 14 home runs and 55 runs scored, as well as a spot on the All-OVC Second Team, but it wasn't what the slugger had envisioned. His own internal pressure was real.
"That was definitely a big part of it, yeah. I put a ton of pressure on myself. I wanted to top what I did my freshman year rather than just kind of letting it happen. I tried too hard make it happen."
Even with Strohschein laboring for much of the season, the Golden Eagles were better than ever before. Cruising to the OVC regular season title behind a potent offense, Tech went into the league tournament on a mission. Strohschein turned in a fantastic showing in three games and, in most years, the young man likely would have emerged as the tournament MVP.
A historic performance from teammate and Tech designated hitter Ryan Flick stood in the way of that, and understandably so. The then junior hit .429 with five home runs and 16 RBI, including a three-home run, nine-RBI showing in game one. The entire Tech offense put on show while leading the Golden Eagles to a sweep of the competition to claim the title and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"It was awesome. There were some great teams we beat. I remember the Morehead [State] game came down to the wire that year. I don't remember who caught the last out, but it was pretty nerve-racking. It was fun to step up, because I felt – and this was probably more just in my head than anything – but I felt like I kind of let the team down. I was supposed to be 'The Guy', and I just wasn't. I kind of came through when it really mattered and that felt pretty good."
Upon their return to Cookeville, with both OVC championship trophies aboard, the Golden Eagles played the waiting game, awaiting the Selection Monday announcement of what would be their first NCAA Regional stop since 2009.
"You're just kind of sitting around, waiting. Everyone speculates and they're always wrong. I can't remember what we were speculating that year, but it definitely wasn't Florida State. It's just really cool when you hear your team announced. We only played Tennessee and Vanderbilt that year, and the year before we only played Tennessee, so we didn't have all that much experience playing against 'Power 5' competition. It was pretty cool. Florida State has a legendary coach [the NCAA's all-time wins leader, Mike Martin] and it was pretty cool to go down and play against those guys."
Squaring off with No. 15 Florida State in that first contest, the Golden Eagle pitching was elite. Veterans Michael Wood and Travis Moths combined for nine innings and one run allowed to take down the Seminoles in a huge first victory for Tech, a program record-breaking 41st of the year. Moths claimed the win after three innings without allowing a base runner and four strikeouts, backed by a comeback victory.
After tying the game at 1-1 in the eighth, Ryan Flick doubled down the right field line to drive in a pair of runs. Strohschein represented one of the two runs after doubling down the same line in the prior at bat.
"I barely even remember that double. I feel like I kind of blacked out. I remember Flick hitting that double down the right field line right after mine. I know there's a picture of me jumping on home plate, but it's all just kind of a blur to me. I remember T-Mo [Moths] shutting it down and getting really excited. It was unreal. Flick just kind of grabbed T-Mo and was talking to him, and didn't even crack a smile."
Strohschein laughed. "I don't even know what he said, but I remember thinking, 'Man, I'm having a hard time not freaking out right now. Flick is a little intense.'"
The next two days would be tough for the Golden Eagles, falling to No. 23 Auburn and then the same Seminole team, both by a final score of 5-3. But despite the losses, the Tech faithful had a lot to be excited about in the year to come. The majority of the Tech lineup would return and be joined with some more key pieces. There was reason to have some confidence.
"I was confident, but then we get into the fall and I'm like 'we're not that good.' Honestly, I don't know. We didn't hit very well. T-Mo and Robby [Tech closer Ethan Roberts] were kind of shut down. We didn't know how they would be or anything. I was confident going in, but after the fall, I definitely didn't expect to be better than the year before, honestly. I know. Everyone's surprised by that."
The start of his junior campaign was the best of his career, as the Tech outfielder hit .340 with three home runs, 12 RBI and nine runs scored over the team's first 10 games. The Golden Eagles were off to a solid start on the year, at 6-4, but not likely what the team had expected. And then, it seemed as if things had just gotten worse.
Game 11 featured a midweek, in-state battle at Lipscomb, a contest that had reached a 17-6 lead in favor of the Golden Eagles. Already having contributed three hits in the contest, Strohschein was still searching for ways to help the team, only this time it would be on the mound.
"I had been begging [former Tech head coach Matt] Bragga to pitch me. It's definitely all on me. I had been begging him, saying 'I can do it! I can do it!' I was throwing hard. I wanted to help out, because we had been having a couple of bullpen issues and, other than Robby, we didn't really know who we were going to go to early in the year. Of course [Colton] Provey and [Tyler] Sylvester stepped up later in the year, but early on we didn't really know. I kind of wanted to help out and I felt like I could. And then I just snapped it."
On just the second pitch against the first batter in his collegiate pitching debut, Strohschein had torn the UCL in his right arm. And what was the first thought to cross his mind?
"Just 'Oh crap.' I mean, I snapped it and just walked right off the mound at Lipscomb… It didn't hurt, and it's supposed to… I convinced myself it wasn't torn, and everyone else did too. We went to Lebanon to see a specialist just to make sure, and of course it was. It was a complete tear."
Despite the initial news, Strohschein never missed a start, playing three days later in Tech's OVC series opener against UT Martin. The difference? Instead of trotting out to his usual home in right field, the slugger would find himself in the dugout, entrenched as the team's new designated hitter.
And like only Strohschein could, he focused and made every at bat count. That first contest post-injury seemed no different in the scorebook, as the young man finished 3-for-5 with a double, a triple and three RBI. Tech would go on to take the first two games of the series, but would drop a 4-3 heartbreaker in the series finale, bringing the team's record to 9-5 on the year.
It would also represent the team's last loss for the next 47 days.
The Golden Eagles welcomed in West Virginia for their next contest, kicking off an OVC-record 28-game winning streak with an 8-0 shutout on Mar. 13. Tech's next loss would occur Apr. 29, a series finale against Southeast Missouri. And what was the nation's longest winning streak in 2018 like?
"That was, oh man. It was like, no matter what we did, we always felt like we were going to win. We were playing at Eastern Illinois and were losing like 10-2 in the middle of the game. Everyone was just kind of walking around and joking around. Nobody had panicked. Literally nobody, and then next thing you know, it's 26-11. That was just kind of emblematic of how that streak was going. No matter what happened, were just confident. The majority of the time we were up by like eight by the second inning, but the few times we weren't, we were just like 'ah, whatever. It's gonna work out.'"
Even with the streak over, it worked out. Tech would cruise to an OVC-record 27-3 mark in league play and the team's 10th regular season crown. The team's 46-7 overall record would also shatter the program's single-season wins mark with postseason still to follow.
At the same time, Strohschein helped the Golden Eagles clinch three of the league's top honors, winning his second career OVC Player of the Year awards. In OVC play alone, the junior slashed .423/.483/.738 with 12 doubles, nine home runs, 38 runs and 36 RBI. He would also be named a semifinalist for two National Player of the Year awards, including the Golden Spikes Award presented by USA Baseball (1 of 25 players) and the Dick Howser Trophy by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (1 of 35 players).
After putting a stamp on the regular season with an enormous comeback victory at Morehead State in the series rubber match (the Golden Eagles overcame a 17-8 deficit over the final three frames to win 18-17), Tech would go on to win each of its first two OVC Tournament games. Tech edged Jacksonville State, 5-2, in the first contest before handling the Eagles in a 10-5 decision.
Morehead State came back from the loser's bracket to earn a rematch with the Golden Eagles in the title game, making the opportunity count. The Eagles won 11-6 to force the if-necessary contest to determine the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Morehead won a heartbreaker over the purple and gold, a 4-3 final that wasn't decided until a solo home run in the ninth inning.
"After that game, it was a combination of things going through our heads. It was a tip of the cap in that, that's the best hitting team we played against in college, honestly. Other than us, they were better than any of the 'Power 5' teams that we played, at hitting. At the same time, it was kind of a wake-up call. Now, it's like, 'Well, we can be beat.'
"And they just beat us. I didn't feel like we beat ourselves. They were better those couple of games. It really was a wake-up call. We were like, 'If we're lucky enough to make it to the postseason now,' which we were pretty confident would happen, 'we're going to have to work. It's not just going to happen.' I think it really could have been the best thing for us."
Just the second time all season the Golden Eagles lost multiple games to the same team, Tech would head into Selection Monday with a certainty of receiving a bid to the NCAA Tournament. The team's resume certainly looked like one of a team deserving of a postseason berth. Ranked No. 22 nationally, the purple and gold boasted the country's most victories and top ranking in most offensive categories.
But still, no OVC team had ever earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"I was a little nervous, yeah. I mean, we had this big party and we were like 'if we won't get in, this is going to be really awkward.' You had to think winning 48 games would help you out, but this is the OVC. It had never happened before, and we all knew that. I think it was [first baseman Chase] Chambers and [shortstop David] Garza walking around, telling everyone, 'stay up, I think it's gonna happen.' And it did."
The Golden Eagles had to wait awhile, but sure enough, Tennessee Tech flashed across the screen, sending the team to Oxford, Miss. for the NCAA Regional hosted by No. 2 nationally-ranked and No. 4 nationally-seeded Ole Miss. Tech had its date with destiny.
"I just remember thinking, 'Ole Miss? Wow! That's like the Mecca for college baseball, almost.' I remember hearing about the beer showers when I was in like eighth grade. I was like, 'I know this is going to be a little different from Florida State.' And it was."
The venue was different in many ways. It was larger, for one. Tech would also represent the No. 2 seed, facing No. 3 seeded Missouri State, rather than the top-seeded Rebels, in the first game. Perhaps none of the differences mattered more than the weather that first day. With several inches of rain dumped on the Oxford area in a period of just a few hours, the first day of contests would be postponed until the next day. But even that would not phase the Golden Eagles.
"We're just hoping the field will be alright. We were hoping we wouldn't have a three-day delay or something like that and be way behind all of the other Regionals. We had trust in T-Mo, that he'd know how to prepare and everything like that. We were alright. We weren't too upset about it."
Finally able to play on Saturday, Tech won its second-straight Regional opener, defeating No. 22 nationally-ranked Missouri State 6-4. The victory set up the Golden Eagles for a Sunday tilt with the home town Rebels.
It proved to be an instant classic, as the Golden Eagles nearly pulled off an epic comeback while batting as the home team. Trailing 9-5 in the bottom of the ninth, Tech scored three runs with two outs to make it a 9-8 game in favor of the Rebels. With the tying run at third base, a win was still within reach, but Ole Miss would hang on to send the purple and gold to the loser's bracket.
More importantly, it meant Tech would have to play later that evening against Missouri State in a rematch with their postseason lives on the line.
Perhaps a little flat after such a grueling loss, the Tech offense struggled to produce at its nation-leading pace in the contest, scoring just two runs. Thanks to one of the single most important pitching performances in the history of Tech baseball, the Golden Eagles would still triumph, 2-1.
Behind a complete-game performance from southpaw Alex Hursey, in which he allowed just one run on three hits, Tech not only advanced to the title game, but also had the chance to rest a pitching staff that would be all-hands-on-deck come Monday. And what did the team have to say to their star of the night?
Strohschein laughed, "'Thanks man!' We definitely came out a little flat. We were kind of emotionally, just spent. I don't' know, that was the biggest game, borderline, that any of us had ever played in, at that time. We were all kind of tired, and we just had a big letdown. And I remember their pitching wasn't even that good in that game, but we scored like just two runs. Hursey just bailed us out. That saved our season. We all understood that. 'Let's make that count tomorrow.'"
And make it count they did. Tech broke out its heavily vaunted offense and turned in a statement win, a 15-5 victory that featured 16 Golden Eagle hits. Roberts gave the purple and gold another inspirational performance, tossing seven and two thirds innings on 107 pitches in his first start of the year.
The ability to showcase that talent in front of 10,000 fans helped show that the Golden Eagle offense was real. Naysayers had claimed that the baseballs used by the conference were easier to hit or that the team was using hotter bats. But playing with the NCAA standard issued ball made everything a level field.
"It was nice, because we had been hearing during BP – because you know, during BP, we like to put on a show – 'It's the balls, it's the balls.' It was nice to show them, it's not the balls. It's not the bats. We can hit. And we can hit your pitching. It's not just OVC pitching. We can hit your pitching.
"It was nice to kind of validate – you hear the announcer saying ridiculous stuff about the balls and all other kinds of stupid stuff in the earlier games when we went back and re-watched the stream – so it was nice to validate that. That's the way I felt anyways. And I know Coach Bragga was yelling 'it's not the balls!' So it was nice to validate that for us."
The victory sent the Golden Eagles into another if-necessary contest, playing against the Rebels, who had lost just four times in their own stadium during the regular season, one more time later that evening. Tech would represent the home team in the contest as another raucous crowd of over 10,000 raging fans packed Swayze Field one more time. And in the sixth inning, the place nearly exploded with excitement.
Rebel shortstop Grae Kessinger (the grandson of former Ole Miss All-American, six-time All-Star and two- time Gold Glove winner of the Chicago Cubs, Don Kessinger) crushed a home run to left field on the first pitch of the frame. The Rebels would add another run later in the inning, taking a 2-0 lead in the contest.
Tech answered almost immediately. With a runner on and one out in the bottom of the sixth, third baseman Trevor Putzig delivered one of the most clutch hits in the history of the OVC. He blasted a two-run shot to left field on the first pitch he saw, despite nursing a bum hamstring. The long ball tied the game, until the seventh.
With runners on first and third and one out in the inning, Strohschein came to the plate. He wasted no time, connecting on the first pitch he saw for a long, towering fly ball to the warning track down the right field line. Caught in fair territory, it represented a sacrifice fly and the go-ahead RBI for a 3-2 lead.
"It was a little up and in. I thought it'd be close. The ball was carrying a little better in game two than it was in game one, so I was hoping it would go out. And then I was hoping it would stay fair so he couldn't just let it drop and not get the sac fly, because they had their dude on the mound. I knew he was having a really good year. I was just glad I put one into play and didn't ground into a double play or strikeout and put a ton of pressure on someone else."
Prior to his at-bat though, he was asked to do something he hadn't in nearly three months – play defense. Tech's right fielder since Strohschein's injury, Nick Osborne was asked to take the mound to start the seventh inning, requiring a replacement. With the inability to keep his dangerous bat out of the lineup, Coach Bragga made the gamble of putting Strohschein in right, knowing the right arm hadn't been used in some time, but keeping him the lineup for one more at bat.
"I could throw it a little bit. I could probably throw it about 75 at that point. That was about the extent of it. I was like, 'I don't really care. It's already torn.' I remember thinking, 'If they hit one to me, it's gonna hurt really bad, but I'll just let it rip.' I could probably get something on it. I hadn't really tried to throw one hard since it had happened because I knew it would hurt really bad. So if they got on to me, I was going to get something on it. It was just going to hurt.'
As fate would have it, Strohschein would not require the use of arm in the field, seeing no action prior to being replaced defensively in the eighth inning by Anthony Carrera. Instead, he got a great seat to witness one of the biggest moments in Tech Athletics history. Still on the hill, Osborne would record an out before allowing just his second hit of the game. He forced a shallow fly ball to Carrera for the second, leaving him to face Kessinger with the game, and a spot in the NCAA Super Regionals, on the line.
Osborne worked a full count to Kessinger, finally forcing a high pop fly to the right side of the infield on seventh pitch of the at bat. Standing in the dugout, just several feet away, Strohschein had one thought race through his mind.
"'They need to communicate!' It was [second baseman John] Ham and Chambers. Chambers looked like he was about to catch it. Then Ham was about to catch it and I'm thinking, 'No. They're not gonna let this fall and let this guy score right now.' Because I think the tying run was on first and it was a high pop up. I think he would have scored if we missed it. I was really nervous. I was like 'Please catch it!'"
That's exactly what Ham did, recording the final out for a 3-2 victory and dog pile to the right of the pitcher's mound. And Strohschein was sure to get in on the biggest celebration of his life, one that he still has a hard time describing to this day.
"I just remember sprinting to the pitcher's mound and going nuts. I was at the bottom. Ozzy [Osborne] was a sneaky guy. Smart guy, getting out from the bottom and jumping on top again. But wow. It's hard to describe. I don't know. It was like…I can't even describe it. It was just so much happiness. I don't know."
The victory made Tennessee Tech the first Ohio Valley Conference baseball team ever to advance to the NCAA Super Regionals, a fact that was hard to take in with the MLB Draft underway before it even happened.
"I don't think we really thought about it. We didn't really think about it. We knew we were just that good. None of us were thinking, 'Oh, this is a little fluky.' We just knew that we were one of the best teams in the country. And there was nobody that doubted that. We really didn't care what conference we were in at that point. We had a ton of guys looking to get drafted right after that."
Round one of the league's annual draft had actually taken place the same day as the two contests, with Ole Miss ace Ryan Rolison taken with the 22nd selection. On the bus ride back to Cookeville, it was Tech's turn to see some guys realize the next step of their baseball careers, with Ethan Roberts (fourth round, Chicago Cubs) and Travis Moths (seventh round, Arizona Diamondbacks) each off the board.
Day three saw the Golden Eagles set an OVC record, finishing with eight players selected in the draft and a total of 10 players signing professional contracts (catcher Brennon Kaleiwahea and Osborne would sign deals with the Cubs and Athletics, respectively, in the following weeks). Putzig (17th round, Baltimore Orioles), Chambers (18th round, New York Mets), center fielder Alex Junior (19th round, New York Yankees) and right-hander hurler Marcus Evey (20th round, New York Yankees), made it four straight rounds with a Tech player taken.
Ham would join his teammates in the 31st round (Baltimore Orioles) and Garza would round out the draft class in the 38th round (Arizona Diamondbacks). But mysteriously, no Kevin Strohschein.
"I thought I was going to go, honestly. I'm not upset that I didn't. I thought I was going to go. I had a pretty high asking price for a guy with a torn elbow, but the advisor I had at the time said I was gonna go. I thought I was going to go on day two, like around the sixth. And then it was all seniors, like seven to 10. Then my advisor said, 'Oh, you'll go tomorrow.' I think it was the Braves and Marlins, I thought I was going to one of them in the 11th. I think that's what Coach Wright was telling me the next day, because we had practice. And then it just didn't work out. After like the 20th round, I was like, 'I'm coming back,' which was completely cool with me."
With the draft out of the way, Tech took to the skies on a trip to Austin for a match-up with the No. 5 nationally-ranked Texas Longhorns in the NCAA Super Regionals. The first OVC team to ever make the trip, the Golden Eagles would touch down and visit UFCU Disch-Falk Field, another impressive cathedral in the pantheon of college baseball stadiums.
"They have huge stands, like a huge grandstand behind the plate, and I thought that was cool. I actually didn't know the complete history of it until we had a workout at their weight facility. I knew about Roger Clemens, obviously, that's huge. But they had a guy drafted in every single draft, and I thought that was unbelievable. It was cool. You go down there and look around and then come back out and you're hitting on the field and you think, 'There's been a ton of big league players that have played here.' And that was pretty cool."
While the stadium proved awe-inspiring indeed, it never phased the Golden Eagle crew. Tech went right into game one and hung on to defeat the Longhorns 5-4. Trailing initially, 1-0, the purple and gold rallied in the third with a two-run single from senior catcher Brennon Kaleiwahea.
Texas took back a 3-2 lead in the bottom half, but Tech bounced back again in the fifth. Taking the lead for good this time, the Golden Eagles used a two-run double from Chambers and an RBI double from Garza to jump in front 5-3. Roberts locked it down with a four-inning save to move the purple and gold just a single win from a trip to Omaha and the first NCAA College World Series trip in league history.
Perhaps the victory right out of the gate was a wake-up call to the fans in burnt orange packing the stadium, but for the Tech faithful, and even the team itself, it was another confidence booster in validating that the team was the real deal. Maybe even too much confidence?
"Yeah. We win game one and I remember thinking, 'We just played bad. We didn't even play good and we just beat these guys. Tomorrow we're going to blow them out.' Because that was their Friday-night guy, we hit bad, and we still hit him alright. I just remember thinking, 'We're going to win tomorrow, 10-0, and then we're going to Omaha.' And it just didn't work out."
Texas would go on to claim each of the next two contests by close margins. In game one, the Longhorns jumped out to an immediate lead and never let go, defeating Tech 4-2. It was much of the same in game two, as a 4-0 lead after three turned into a 5-2 victory for the home team. In the bottom of the ninth, Ham put a charge into a fly ball to left field in what would have equaled a game-tying, three-run home run, but it hung in the air just too much and missed by about five feet, ending the Golden Eagles' historic season.
"At first it was heartbreak, I would say. And then I pretty excited to see some of my best friends go play pro ball. That's their dream and everything. But at first I was really sad. We all saw Ethan Roberts get emotionally distraught on the mound out there, because that's a guy that gave his all for three years. That kind of hit me and I was thinking, 'That's the last time that guy will ever touch the mound in college.' He and T-Mo are the best competitors I've ever seen. It hit me there that this era is over, or at least the guys I came in with is over."
With the season officially over, Strohschein underwent the knife almost immediately to repair his elbow. He spent the rest of the summer and the majority of the fall rehabbing and getting as ready for his senior campaign as quickly as he could. He had something, he felt, to prove to those that didn't draft him.
"A little bit, yeah. I felt like I still should have been drafted, definitely. I'm not really one to hold a grudge, or anything like that, but I definitely used it as fuel to prove that I could come back from having elbow surgery and be the same guy. Which I thought I did."
On his path to proving the injury hadn't changed him, he also was learning to work with almost a completely different team. Returning as the only consistent member of the Golden Eagle lineup from the year before, Strohschein took on a larger leadership role for his final year, including more of a vocal presence.
"I'm a pretty quiet guy, but I felt like I took JD Funk and Jason Hogan under my wing a little bit. I talked to them about hitting and tried to lead them a little more. Other than that, I just try to do things the right way and hopefully others will do the same thing. Hopefully I've built up some respect here and they can use that to learn."
His last collegiate campaign, Strohschein watched as his team attempted to deal with a rash of injuries, throughout the year, particularly to the pitching staff. A young team with little depth because of the health, the Golden Eagles finished the year 22-32 with a 9-21 mark in OVC play, just missing out on the OVC Tournament.
Despite the team's struggles at times, Strohschein turned in one of the best years of his career, batting .382 with 89 hits, 23 doubles, 15 home runs, 47 RBI, 57 runs scored, a .691 slugging percentage and .447 on-base percentage. The performance would lead to his second-straight OVC Player of the Year honor, making him just the second baseball player, and first position player, ever to win Player of the Year three times.
"I'm just blessed, I don't know. That's pretty cool. It's pretty special. I don't even know. You know, I've played with some great guys, some great players. I was lucky to put up numbers even close to what they did. Guys like Chambers and Flick and all those guys. I don't know. I'm just lucky. I feel lucky."
On his journey to OVC Player of the Year honors, Strohschein laid waste to the career record books of the league and Tech, breaking a total of 15 between the two. His 362 hits, 247 RBI, 74 doubles, 62 home runs, 642 total bases and 1,009 at-bats all established new conference and program marks for a career, while his 238 runs scored (three off the record) and 236 games played and started (one off the record) each finished as the second-most ever by an OVC player.
"I felt like it was cooler to my teammates than it was to me. It's just not really who I am to be caught up in all of that stuff. I'd hit a double, or something like that, I'd break a record and half the time I'd have no idea that I just broke a record. I'd come in to the dugout and everyone is just going nuts. That's pretty cool that they care like that. I think that was the coolest part, to me. If I was getting close to a record or broke a record, they were just always in there going crazy, chanting my name and stuff like that. I thought, 'That's pretty cool of these guys. These guys care like that.'"
For Strohschein, none stood out more than when he broke two OVC records with one swing. Playing at No. 13 NC State on Apr. 23 in some midweek action, the slugger put a charge into a ball in the first inning, crushing a two-run bomb to left center field. The long ball set new league standards for both hits and RBI.
But perhaps no achievement was more jaw-dropping than one that took even the league's most-decorated player by surprise. Strohschein's 362 career hits ranked him 10th in the history of NCAA Division I baseball.
"That one definitely took me by surprise. I had no idea. We were at UT Martin and I was eating with my parents and I – at the end of the year, Tech baseball was just awesome. They were Tweeting me just constantly with congrats and all of this other kind of stuff – and I get another notification from Twitter. I was like 'Am I reading that right? What?' That one just took me for shock. I don't know. That one was pretty cool. I will say that.
"I remember looking at the list and seeing Khalil Greene. I remember him from back in the day. I remember back when I was like six and I remember who that is. That was pretty cool."
With his senior campaign over, Strohschein set his sights on the MLB Draft, hoping that 2019 would be different than the year prior. While it took a little longer than he might have liked, the Tech legend finally heard his name called in the 21st round by the representatives of the Washington Nationals.
"The wait was definitely tough, just because of what I went through last year. I was just kind of wondering, 'Do these scouts just not like me? Is there something I'm doing wrong?' You just really don't know what's going through their head after being passed up last year and waiting so long this year. It obviously feels really good. It's just good to get an opportunity and continue living out my dream."
The selection officially closed the book on one of the most historic careers by an OVC athlete, something that was not lost on the young man himself. His love for his teammates, his fans, his team and his community all will stick with him to the end.
"It's bittersweet, because I absolutely loved my time at Tech. I'll be a proud Golden Eagle for the rest of my life. The time was coming where'd I'd be done, and now it's officially here. I'll still be around and everything, but it's definitely bittersweet."
As he thinks back to his final year at George Walton Academy, he can't help but be thankful just for the opportunity to be a Golden Eagle.
"It just means everything. You just want a chance out of high school, kind of like how I just wanted a chance to play after college. When a place can give that to you, and everything you could dream of and more…I never would have imagined that I would have set any records. That's not why I play the game. A school that could give me that opportunity – not many freshman can come in and start as a freshman, or at least at one as storied as this one has become – that means everything to me. We have some crazy fans that love us and come out, so that was memorable too."
With his next stop likely to be with Nationals' Short Season-A affiliate, the Auburn Doubledays, Strohschein is clearly ready for the next chapter in his incredible story.
"I'm just pumped. I'm just looking forward to competing. I've always loved to compete on the baseball field. That's kind of who I've been for 15 years or however long it's been. I'm just ecstatic to be able to keep playing and keep living out my dream. I always wanted to be a major league baseball player, and now I'll try to make that happen."
Before he takes that next step, before the "Stroh Show" takes to the rigors and challenges of minor league baseball, the man behind it all had two things left to say.
One to his team:
"We are a great program. I don't think it was a rebuilding year, but this was a young team. You just have to trust that with experience, we'll be right back on top of the OVC. We weren't very good my freshman year. We finished a little better than this, but we were also older. This team reminds me a lot of my freshman year when we had a lot of freshmen starting and a young rotation. Just have to trust that it's going to happen."
And one to the fans and community that have supported him through it all:
"Just thank you for all the support! It's been unreal. This place will always be really special to me and my plan is to stay here and train in the off seasons. This community means tons to me and to all of the diehard fans, I just want to say thank you!"
No. Thank you, Stroh. Thank you!
Photos by Thomas Corhern, Tony Marable, Kyle Schwartz, Petre Thomas