KENT: Kent State pitchers David Starn, a senior, and Tyler Skulina, a sophomore, walked down this road together before and they can only hope that it leads to the same destination — a championship.
The duo pitched on the same Walsh Jesuit team that ran away with the state title just four years ago. Now they find themselves in the hunt for that rarest of rarities in collegiate sports — a national championship.
After winning their regional bracket this past weekend, Starn, Skulina and their teammates will face Oregon at PK Park in Eugene, Ore., in a three-game series in a super regional that begins Saturday night at 11 p.m.
But theirs is a friendship that goes beyond the baseball diamond, said their former coach, Walsh’s Chris Kaczmar.
“The thing that I like most about their relationship is that David was really a big brother and mentor to Tyler,” he said.
Considering the two grew up miles apart — Starn in Hudson and Skulina in Strongsville — a strong friendship might appear odd.
“Even when he [Skulina] came in as a freshman at Walsh we were inseparable then,” Starn said after Tuesday’s practice. “We hang out even when we’re not on the baseball field. He’s one of my best buddies.”
But sports can bring even the most vitriolic enemies together. They shared baseball in common at Walsh and when Skulina arrived, Starn took the opportunity to return some good will.
“Chad Rodgers [a pitcher in the Atlanta Braves system] kind of took me under his wing when I was two years under him,” said Starn who was drafted by the Braves in the seventh round Tuesday. “When Skulina came in he was the best guy in the freshman class and he was on the varsity.”
Eventually, the duo served as the top two pitchers on the Warriors staff as they went on to win the state title.
“He showed me the ropes of high school. He helped me with keeping focus on games,” Skulina said. “He had a choice whether to help me out or not and he did. It just shows his character.”
KSU coach Scott Stricklin knows of the bond two of his top pitchers share. He’s not surprised by Starn’s behavior.
“David is the leader of our pitching staff. The guys respect him and how hard he works,” Stricklin said.
And it was Starn that Skulina turned to when he came to KSU.
With Starn entrenched on the KSU pitching staff, his friend began his post high school career on baseball scholarship at Virginia. He stayed in Charlottesville for three months before he began to look for a new home.
“It wasn’t a good fit for me,” Skulina said of Virginia. “He [Starn] influenced me coming here.”
Starn said he was eager for his friend to join the staff and Stricklin knows that he is one of the reasons that Skulina returned to Northeast Ohio to continue his collegiate baseball career.
“I think it certainly helped Tyler in the process of transferring in here, coming in feeling more comfortable, having someone who could help him in the transfer process,” Stricklin said. “That really helped him get into the team and mesh better because David was there for him.”
It’s a friendship built on respect and baseball, and people notice. It’s one thing when friends understand the relationship they have. When others notice, it shows just how special it is.
“I think the fact that they’re together on championship teams is no coincidence,” Kaczmar said. “Those types of relationships are something that I take with me forever.”
And it appears that it will continue off the field. Skulina, if it’s possible, took as much pleasure in Starn’s good fortune Tuesday night.
“I was just glad to hear his name called in the draft,” he said. “No one gave him any chance to even play in college. Kent State gave him a chance to play in college and now the Braves are giving him a chance too.”
And if Skulina heard his name drafted by the Braves a couple of years from now that would work for him. He knows he’d have someone within the organization to support him.