WKU baseball moves forward following best C-USA campaign

Junior infielder Jack Wilson takes a swing during the Hilltoppers’ 8-7 win over Belmont on Tuesday in Nick Denes Field.

Kaden Gaylord

The WKU baseball team’s 100th season ended unceremoniously Friday, as the Hilltoppers dropped their second Conference USA Tournament game in a lopsided 15-8 loss against Texas-San Antonio.

“Endings are never easy, when it’s final it’s very difficult. We just talked about how proud we are as a group, as a staff, as a program of what these guys accomplished this year,” head coach John Pawlowski said in a postgame press release. At some point we needed to break the ice and make a spot in the Conference USA Tournament and this was the year we did that.”

The Hilltoppers started out strong, as they scored four runs early in the third inning after giving up a run to UTSA in the first. Redshirt junior third baseman Sam McElreath and senior second baseman Nick Brunson each had an RBI single, helping WKU build an early 4-1 lead.

The Roadrunners scored two more runs in the bottom of third, drawing closer at 4-3. But WKU outscored the Roadrunners 3-1 in the fourth and fifth innings, highlighted by junior left fielder Ray Zuberer lll hitting his second home run of the tournament. At that point, the Hilltoppers led 7-4.

UTSA went on to outscore WKU 9-0 in the next two innings.

Ahead 7-5 with two outs and the bases empty in the bottom of the sixth, WKU allowed the next five UTSA batters to reach base. The Roadrunners took advantage of mental mistakes by the Hilltoppers — scoring off a home run, a balk, an RBI single and a wild pitch, which gave UTSA an 8-7 lead at the end of the sixth. After that, the Roadrunners ran away with the game.

WKU had no answer at the start of the seventh, only getting one runner on base. UTSA continued the rally and scored five more runs in the seventh. All five were brought home by RBI doubles. Left fielder Ryan Stacy and third baseman Griffin Paxton hit the two daggers that ended any hope for WKU.

Despite 14 hits, WKU couldn’t recover from the late run by UTSA. The Hilltoppers ultimately lost the game, allowing the Roadrunners to score 15 runs on 16 hits. The loss also knocked WKU out of the C-USA tournament.

Junior right fielder Jake Sanford went 4 for 5 with one RBI, while Zuberer went 1 for 4 with two walks, one RBI and tied a career-high with three runs scoredDesignated hitter junior Richard Constantine went 3 for 5 and junior first baseman Jack Wilson went 3 for 6.

Seniors Nick Brunson, Reece Calvert, Joe Filosa, Jacob Green and Troy Newell played their last games in a WKU uniform in Biloxi, Mississippi, as they became the first group of upperclassmen to lead the Hilltoppers to an C-USA Tournament appearance. The seniors also led WKU to its first win in a conference tournament since a 7-4 victory over Louisiana Monroe in the 2012 Sun Belt Tournament.

“I talked to the seniors first and told them how they’ve left their mark here. They’ll always be remembered as the first group to help get us to this tournament, which is important,” Pawlowski said in a postgame press release. And the guys who will be back need to use this is a motivating factor to play on this stage.”

Sanford’s 2019 campaign was one of the best in program history. Starting all 56 games while playing every single inning in the outfield, Sanford had a .398/.483/.805 batting line with 88 hits, 178 total bases, 22 home runs, 20 doubles, 66 RBIs and 65 runs scored. He also walked 33 times and stole six bases. Sanford was recently rated by MLB Pipeline as the No. 108 overall prospect, including the No. 17 outfielder among eligible players.

Some key returners for next year are redshirt sophomore pitcher Bailey Sutton and freshman center fielder Jackson Swiney.

Sutton lead the team in wins this year while his 4.04 ERA was the lowest for WKU. Sutton was second on the team in saves with three, second on the team in strikeouts with 54 and gave up only four home runs all year.

Swiney ended his freshman year by starting 52-of-56 games and making the All-Freshman team in C-USA. He had a .257/.348/.422 batting line, hit six home runs and ended the season with 35 RBIs.

The Hilltoppers went 17-10-1 at home, 8-14 on the road and 1-5 in neutral site games. After not qualifying for the C-USA Tournament in their first four years in the league, the Hilltoppers earned the No. 4 seed with a 16-13-1 record in conference play. WKU finished the season 26-29-1, its best season since joining C-USA and Pawlowski’s best mark during his time on the Hill.

Baseball reporter Kaden Gaylord can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @_KLG3.