Toppers hoping for return trip to NCAA Tournament

Freshman pitcher Tate Glasscock stretches in the bullpen during practice on Feb. 8. The baseball team will open their season today at 3 p.m. at Nick Denes Field.

Kurt Carson

Last season didn’t end the way the Toppers hoped it would.

WKU finished with a record of 33-24 last season, missing the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.

Head Coach Matt Myers said despite a few key losses from last year’s team, making the postseason will remain their ultimate goal.

“The goal is to win a conference championship,” Myers said. “Every year we want that. We want a chance to play in the postseason.”

WKU will look for junior left-hander Tanner Perkins and sophomore right-hander Justin Hageman to carry a lot of the weight for the pitching staff this season. Both Perkins and Hageman were named to the 2012 Preseason All-Sun Belt Conference Team.

Perkins will start the Toppers’ season opener at 3 p.m. on Friday against Toledo at Nick Denes Field.

Myers previously said Hageman would pitch Saturdays, a role he also filled in 2011.

But WKU Media Relations confirmed on Thursday that Hageman will go to the bullpen to serve as the Toppers’ closer this weekend.

Freshman left-hander Ian Tompkins, a Louisville St. Xavier High School product, will instead start on Saturday.

Hageman’s move to the pen will soldify a young group which faltered at the end of several games last season.

Junior right-hander Taylor Haydel has  also been converted from a starter to a reliever in hopes to create more depth and solidify the bullpen.

“We’ve lost a lot in the bullpen the last couple of years, and that’s the biggest question mark for me — replacing that,” Myers said.

Perkins said he’s not worried with the depth of the pitching staff and said he feels no added pressure to pitch deep into games just because there aren’t as many bullpen arms.

“Our young guys have stepped up in the spring, and I think they’re going to be just fine on the mound,” Perkins said. “It’s going to be rough getting some innings under their belt like it was for me, but after that I think they’ll be fine.”

Offensively, the Toppers lost a few key components from last season, especially catcher Matt Rice and outfielder Kes Carter, both of whom were drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays last summer.

However, they return powerful bats in senior third baseman Casey Dykes and senior outfielders Jared Andreoli and Ryan Hutchison.

The Toppers finished with a .297 batting average last year — tied for third-best in the Sun Belt Conference.

Dykes said he likes what he sees from the team as a whole in the early stages of the 2012 campaign.

“The team chemistry and the way we play together is different than it’s been the last couple of years,” he said. “I think it’s better. It’s been fun to watch so far.”

Myers said he’s excited to watch this team go and get the season underway but that he also knows there are still questions left unanswered.

However, he said those things will play themselves out. He said he simply wants his team focused on their ultimate goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament, something WKU hasn’t done since 2009.

“That’s been our goal the day we got these guys together: to be one of the best teams in the conference, compete for a conference championship, get back to a regional and learn how to win that regional,” Myers said.