WKU Baseball looking for a new start in 2017

Junior right hand pitcher Cody Coll pitches during the Hilltoppers 3-2 win over Belmont University on Tuesday April 19, 2016 at Nick Denes Field in Bowling Green, Ky. Coll faced 17 batters with 4 strikeouts.

Tyler Mansfield

Winter is starting to slip away as temperatures are beginning to rise, the sun is filling the sky each day and college baseball teams are now practicing on a day-to-day basis.

WKU is one of those teams.

The Hilltoppers, entering their third season in Conference USA, do so with their backs against the wall. WKU was picked to finish 12th out of 12 teams in a conference that sent four teams to the NCAA Baseball Championship last season and ranked fifth out of all conferences in 2016.

Along with being placed at the very bottom of the pack, WKU had no players named to the All-Conference Team. Preseason polls are generated based off teams’ performances the prior year, and the Hilltoppers didn’t play their best baseball in year one under rookie Head Coach John Pawlowski.

WKU finished 24-30 overall in 2016 with a mark of 10-20 in C-USA and ended its campaign on a 10-game losing streak, watching its postseason hopes vanish. In 2015, their inaugural season in the new league, the Toppers also struggled, finishing 24-28 (10-19 C-USA) failing to reach the conference’s postseason tournament.

WKU opened last year’s slate with a home series victory over Youngstown State and then went 3-0 at the Bulldog Invitational, hosted by Georgia, as it defeated Cincinnati, South Alabama and the hosts themselves. The Toppers carried that momentum into their next two games  as they won both, but then went on a downhill slide throughout the remainder of the season.

Pawlowski and his group will likely have their minds set on overcoming adversity, winning games, making it to the C-USA Tournament and protecting its new turf at Nick Denes Field in 2017.

Todd Stewart, WKU Director of Athletics, announced last May that an AstroTurf-designed playing field would be installed at WKU’s home ballpark. The $1.3 million project was 100 percent privately funded and was completed in August.

“When I came to WKU our facilities were already great,” junior outfielder Kaleb Duckworth told the Bowling Green Daily News in August. “The new field is definitely exciting. It’s awesome that people are investing in our program. Now we need to go win some games for them.”

The Toppers have the chance to do that beginning Feb. 17 when they open their season with a three-game series against Valparaiso on the new field. On top of getting to play in front of its home fans to kickoff 2017, WKU will play 17 of its first 21 games in Bowling Green.

The Toppers can take advantage of that golden opportunity with the help of their key returning starters. Pawlowski will have the chance to mold his team around returning players Duckworth, redshirt senior infielders Leiff Clarkson and Thomas Peter, redshirt senior outfielder Zach Janes, senior outfielder Paul Murray and senior catcher Hunter Wood.

The six players combined for an overall batting average of .273 while also recording a total of 232 hits and 135 runs, including nine home runs.

On top of the offensive returners, Pawlowski has a strong bullpen with a handful of experienced pitchers in redshirt senior right-handers Jackson Sowell and Kevin Elder, senior righty Cody Coll, redshirt junior left-handed pitcher Ryan Thurston and sophomore lefty Evan Acosta.

The five returning pitchers combined to record 181 strikeouts in 225.4 total innings pitched in 2016.

As for Pawlowski, he enters his 15th year as a Head Coach with 529 wins under his belt and 11 NCAA Tournament trips in his 23-year collegiate coaching career. The hot start he and WKU got off to last season was the best start for the Hilltoppers since the 1985 campaign. After the Bulldog Invitational, WKU received votes in the National College Baseball Writer’s Association poll, which marked the first time the Toppers were ranked in any poll since May of 2010.

WKU will try and get off on the right foot for a second-straight year later this month.

Reporter Tyler Mansfield can be reached at 270-745 6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @RealTMansfield.