Hilltoppers look for improvement after late-season failures in 2018

Freshman Maddex Richardson, pitches during the game against West Virginia Sunday, March 4 at Nick Denes Field. The Toppers lost with a final score of 7-1.

Kaden Gaylord

The WKU baseball team is set to start its 100th season against Northern Kentucky this Friday, and its focus for this season is to take another step in improving.

“Last year we played very well, we struggled down the stretch,” head coach John Pawlowski said. “I felt like we made some strides last year. We’ve talked to the group that we have back this year about what we need to do as a team, as a program, to take that next step.”

Earlier this offseason, sophomore outfielder Luke Brown announced he was leaving the program and transferring to a different school, adding to the list of multiple key losses to the Hilltoppers roster in the offseason. In 2018, infielder Steven Kraft and outfielder Jacob Rhinesmith led the team in every major offensive category, and with them going pro, it leaves a spot for new players to step up and assume their roles.

“I look at us three as the leaders of the team, and we have to show them the ropes,” junior outfielder Ray Zuberer lll said of himself, junior infielder Davis Sims and junior outfielder Kevin Lambert. “This group works very hard. The past years, I’m not gonna say we haven’t worked really hard, but this group has, they put in the time, the effort.”

Zuberer finished last year ranked third on the Hilltoppers with a .315/.401/.430 slash line in 44 starts and had 22 RBIs, improving in every statistical category every year he has been in the program.

With the team losing a total of 17 players from last season, it brought in a total of 21 newcomers, six incoming freshmen and 15 incoming transfers, including graduate transfer Davis Sims.
Sims spent two seasons at Murray State and slashed .333/.403/.552 with 150 hits in 451 at-bats while also earning Second Team All-OVC honors in his redshirt sophomore year.

“I love it here,” Sims said. “It’s been a big adjustment. It’s a little bit bigger than Murray, but I think I’ve been able to adjust pretty well to it. I love it here.”

Sims will get to play against his former team this season on Feb. 26 when the Racers visit WKU.

WKU lost nine pitchers from its rotation in the offseason but gained 11 new ones, including nine transfers. Redshirt senior Reece Calvert will be able to play this season after transferring from Ohio State and sitting out last season because of NCAA transfer rules. He went 2-1 in 2017 and recorded 25 strikeouts in 39 innings.

“I like the options we have—that’s the exciting thing,” Pawlowski said of his rotation. “You know, our pitching staff might look a little different.”

Last year, the Hilltoppers ended the season with a 21-31 overall record, 11- 18 in Conference USA, and finished 10th in the conference standings after climbing as high as fourth. They ended the season losing 14 of their last 20 games and failing to make the conference tournament.

WKU will open the season with eight of its first nine games at Nick Denes Field before heading to Florida at the beginning of March. The first series against NKU is this Friday through Sunday.

NKU finished last season with a record of 14-39 and a 9-21 record in its conference, which qualified for last in the Horizon League. Game time for the first game on Friday is set for 3 p.m.

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