Pawlowski era set to begin at WKU

WKU’s infielder Danny Hudzina, left, talks to the press as infielder Thomas Peter listens during the Hilltoppers’ press conference on Wednesday. “Our number one goal is to be in the Conference USA tournament, once you’re there anything can happen,” Head Coach John Pawlowski said. Shaban Athuman/HERALD

Sam Porter

As the John Pawlowski era begins, the WKU baseball team looks to prove that they belong in the now familiar Conference USA.

The veteran head coach boasts 505 total wins, 11 NCAA Tournament appearances and 80 MLB draft selections during his 22-year coaching tenure at the collegiate level and looks to continue his success at his new home.

The Hilltoppers finished 24-28, 10-19 C-USA in 2015, and missed the C-USA tournament in their first season in the new league. The WKU baseball team is preseason picked to finish ninth out of 12 teams in Conference USA.

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“We don’t really pay attention to any of those things,” redshirt junior infielder Peter Thomas said regarding the preseason ranking.

“We don’t really look at what people think we’re going to do,” Thomas said. “We’re going to play our game. No matter what people say, we’re going to go out and play as hard as we can. We’ve been extremely motivated ever since fall. This team has really come together, and we’re itching for success. Our lineup is going to be solid. I know it.”

The Hilltoppers will look to their bullpen to be the strength of their team this year. The bullpen will be led by senior Josh Bartley and redshirt junior Kevin Elder.

Bowling Green native Josh Bartley led the Hilltoppers with six victories, including a win over third-ranked Louisville last season, and 59.1 innings in 2015 as ones of WKU’s primary pitchers in 2015.

Kevin Elder, a Hampshire, Illinois, native, led the Hilltoppers with a 1.87 ERA and held his opponents scoreless in 16 of his 23 appearances in 2015.

Joining Bartley and Elder in the rotation are seniors Austin King and John Harman, redshirt junior Jackson Sowell, and juniors Cody Coll, Ben Morrison, Sam Higgs and Ryan Thurston.

“I’m really encouraged by all our pitchers,” Pawlowski said. “They’re willing to learn and they’ve been through some battles. They’ve seen how tough this conference is, so I think they’ve learned from last year’s experience and I hope that will help us take that next step this year. This conference is very competitive on Friday and Saturday nights and I know our pitchers are ready to accept that challenge.”

At the plate, the Hilltoppers are led by senior infielder Danny Hudzina. Hudzina, a 2016 preseason All-Conference USA selection, provided WKU with its most consistent bat in 2015.

Hudzina, from Palm City, Florida, led WKU with 66 hits, a .327 batting average, and 22 multiple hit games in 2015. His 2015 performance earned him Second Team All-Conference USA.

“I feel pretty confident with our team’s ability at the plate,” Hudzina said. “We obviously we won’t have as much power as we did last year but our short game has gotten a lot better. We’ve worked on that a lot and that’s going to be one of our keys to success.”

Also joining Hudzina at the plate is sophomore outfielder Kaleb Duckworth. The former Kentucky Mr. Baseball award winner is a Hilltopper to watch this season after he batted .295 with five home runs in 2015.

Duckworth was in contention for C-USA freshman of the year before a shoulder injury kept him out for the final month of the season.

The program will look to make its first-ever C-USA tournament after missing out last season as the team finished a disappointing second-to-last place in the regular season conference standings.

“One of our goals is to get in the Conference USA tournament,” Pawlowski said. “They take the top eight teams and there’s 12 teams in the conference. Once you get into the tournament, anything can happen.”

The WKU baseball team opens its season this weekend in a three-game series against Youngstown State. The first matchup will be played at 3 p.m on Friday, Feb. 19, at Nick Denes Field.