Last season, newly hired WKU Baseball head coach, John Pawlowski entered media day eager to elevate the baseball program into perennial Conference USA contenders. This season, Pawlowski and the Tops entered media day with a chip on their shoulder.
Fresh off a 24-30 season and missing the conference tournament for a second consecutive season, the Tops will attempt to build on their trying 2016 season.
One goal coach Pawlowski emphasized during media day on Tuesday was the importance of qualifying for the conference tournament. It’s a milestone the program has failed to reach since moving from the Sun Belt to C-USA.
“In the two years in the conference, we haven’t earned any stripes yet,” Pawlowski said. “We need to make some headway in the conference. It’s a challenge. It’s a balancing act. We definitely want to win now.”
To return to the postseason, the Tops will rely on many new faces. WKU has 19 new roster additions since the end of last season. Many junior college players will be looked upon to fill the voids left by graduating seniors.
“When you look up and down our roster, you’re going to see, I believe it’s 19 new faces on our team,” Pawlowski said. “You know, anytime you take over a program, you know there’s going to be changes and things as we try to move the program forward. But I’m certainly excited about how hard our guys have worked.”
With so much roster turnover, inter squad competition has been a direct focus of the coaching staff during the off-season. Players have worked tirelessly to earn open spots in the starting nine.
Roster turnover can plague teams at the start of each spring. However, Pawlowski sang a more positive tune during media day. The Tops’ focus is to find the right lineup to form into a winning team so they can consistently compete for conference titles. After being picked to finish last in the C-USA preseason poll, the Tops are anxious to get the season underway and prove doubters wrong.
Redshirt senior pitcher Jackson Sowell says the Tops aren’t focused on what other people say about the team. Instead, he said the team has used it as motivation to fuel the flame.
“It just adds motivation. We don’t really pay attention to much,” Sowell said. “We have a lot of other things we’re trying to pay attention to right now. That’s our goal right now. We don’t really pay attention to that at all.”
The Tops won’t just be starting the season with a new-look team, but a new-look playing surface.
During the offseason, Nick Denes Field underwent a facelift as the grass playing surface was removed and replaced with turf. Both the players and coaching staff gave raving reviews of the new turf. The new surface will not only affect the Tops strategy on the field during games, but in preparing for inclement weather as well.
Pawlowski is especially excited about not having to worry about preparing for a rainy day anymore.
“When I talked to people about putting that in, they said it will change your life and it certainly has,” Pawlowski said. “I don’t have to sit there and watch a TV screen and watch a big green blob go across, wondering when I have to put the tarp on or not. We don’t have to worry so much. Our players love it. When they don’t have to get that 7 a.m. wakeup call wondering, ‘Hey, we got to put the tarp on?’ It’s so convenient.”
Redshirt senior infielder Thomas Peter was confident the new playing surface won’t affect the way the Tops approach in game strategy. Most players are accustomed to turf fields from playing high school and summer baseball.
“We’ve all played on turf before so it’s really nothing new to all of us, but we love it,” Peter said. “We don’t have to rake after BP [batting practice] anymore. We don’t have to do all that stuff. It’s pretty awesome. We’re really lucky to have it.”
With so much optimism coming from within the program, the Tops are ready to exceed expectations. Last season, WKU won three games against SEC opponents. This season, the Tops have four benchmark games against strong out-of-conference competition. National powerhouses Louisville and Vanderbilt will test the new-look Tops. Pawlowski’s squad also has two games scheduled against instate rival Kentucky.
Peter understands the challenges the team faces heading into the season.
“It’s a big season,” Peter said. “I’ve had a lot of bad luck in the past. At the end of last year, I had a lot of talks … with a lot of the older guys … We knew we were going to come back for one more year and give this thing a shot. Wherever coach needs me, whatever I need to do, I’m going to do whatever I can to get this team a win.”
The Tops will break in their new turf on February 17 during a three-game homestand against Valparaiso.