Play ball: Myers hopes third year is the charm for Hilltopper baseball

WKU left-handed pitcher Ian Tompkins warms up his arm during practice Tuesday, Feb. 11, at Nick Denes Field in preparation for the season opener Friday against Southern Illinois. (Austin Anthony/HERALD)

Billy Rutledge

The weather may not have gotten the memo yet, but the WKU baseball team certainly has as they prepare to play the first game of the season this Friday at Nick Denes Field against Southern Illinois. 

After back-to-back seasons below .500, the Toppers will rely on depth after losing seven seniors, including first basemen and first team All-Sun Belt player Ryan Huck. But with many starters returning and a pitching staff that has had previous success, expectations are high.

Senior Justin Hageman will start for WKU Friday, senior Austin Clay will get the nod for Saturday’s game, and senior Jake Thompson will start the last game against Southern Illinois on Sunday, Coach Matt Myers said Tuesday.

The Sun Belt Conference released its preseason coaches’ polls Monday with WKU picked to finish sixth in the league. The results projected reigning conference champion, Louisiana-Lafayette, finishing first.

The Toppers have proven in recent years to defy preseason expectations by either matching or exceeding the coaches’ poll in four of the past six seasons.

“It’s bulletin board material,” senior infielder Scott Wilcox said. “Were looking to prove people wrong and show that we can play as good as anyone.”

Wilcox joins fellow senior Regan Flaherty as part of the top hitters who are returning to the lineup, giving third-year Head Coach Myers more optimism moving into the season. Replacing a player like Huck, Myers said, is a challenge, but he believes the top of his lineup will be just as tough as the bottom.

“We have about 15 hitters we can put in that lineup and if you’re not hustling then you’re going to be replaced. These guys love competing together,” Myers said.

Clay recognizes that the talent this year will have players giving every effort for a starting role.

“I’ve never been involved in a fall where we have had this much competition of people trying to win spots.” Clay said.

Myers is taking steps in different directions, seeking a broader focus on the team by leaving his position as pitching coach and embracing the full-time role as head coach. The decision, Myers said, was tough, but one he felt was necessary for a team that has the opportunity for a break-out season.

“It was a tough one because, as a baseball coach, I spent a lot of time doing the pitching and took a lot of pride into it,” Myers said. “Every year, you evaluate yourself and your program. I thought that our positions players needed their head coach around them, too.

“For me, I thought it was the best thing for our staff and our team to have me out there as the head coach instead of me being the pitching coach,” he added.

Sixth year assistant Blake Allen will take over the duties as pitching coach and will inherit a list of proven veterans like seniors Austin Clay, Justin Hageman and junior Ian Tompkins.

“Blake (Allen) taking our plan and the things I’ve developed here and adding a little bit of his spice to it, I think it’s been great,” Myers said. “I think it’s been great for the older guys…they get a new voice that maybe shocks them a little bit, which is great. He’s done a phenomenal job.”

WKU and ULL were the only two teams in the conference to have multiple players selected to the 2014 All-Sun Belt Conference team. Wilcox, who has started every game for WKU for two straight years, was selected as the only utility player on the roster since he has had experience playing five different positions. He also ranked among the team leaders in nearly every offensive category last year including hits (77) doubles (16), a pair of triples and placing second in runs (40).

Regan Flaherty is another offensive force looking to capitalize off of his success from a year ago. Very similar to Wilcox, he was the only other player to start every game for WKU last season and ranked among the team leaders in virtually every offensive category. He will spend the majority of his time in left or right field.

Looking at the mound and selected as the only relief pitcher on the All-Conference team is junior Ian Tompkins, who spent his time last season sharing the closer role with graduated senior Taylor Haydel. Now with the position to himself, Tompkins is expected to play a major role as the closer and posted the team’s lowest ERA (2.29). Tompkins was named one of 50 Watch List members for National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year Award, given annually to the top relief pitcher in D-I baseball.

Backing up the mound will return a defense that sported a fielding percentage of .963 last season, giving Myers extra confidence and assurance – including his pitchers – that this could be a special year for the Toppers.

“One of the staples of our program, before I even got here, was defense,” Myers said. “I’m really excited about our defense and I really think it’s made our pitching staff better because they’re pitching to contact.

“I’m real excited to see our defense go after it because I think that’s going to be a big part of how our pitching success is going to be.”