COLUMN: A vital year for Topper baseball

Brad Stephens

Quick show of hands: Who remembers the 2008 and 2009 WKU baseball teams?

Most students here probably don’t.

Those two Topper teams represented the most successful stretch of WKU baseball in our lifetimes.

The 2008 team made a run to win the Sun Belt Conference tournament and advanced to an NCAA Regional.

WKU’s 2009 squad built on that success, finishing one loss away from qualifying for the school’s first-ever Super Regional.

The NCAA runs translated to lots of fans in the stands at Nick Denes Field in 2010 and 2011.

But those 2008 and 2009 teams played before most of us got here.

As we’ve learned with other WKU teams, we live in a “What have you done for me lately?” kind of world.

And in all honesty, the 2010 and 2011 teams didn’t do as much as was expected of them.

Despite producing future draft picks like Matt Ridings, Kes Carter and Matt Rice, neither of those teams finished higher than fourth in the Sun Belt.

Both teams missed the NCAA tournament, yet the stands were still full nearly every game. Perhaps some fans subconsciously attached the successes of the tournament teams with the 2010 and 2011 teams.

That may not continue much longer.

Most students who were freshmen in 2009 when the Toppers came within a Regional Finals loss to Ole Miss from getting to a Super Regional are now second-semester seniors.

And most of the students who saw the 2008 team play have now graduated.

Much of the current group of students have never seen the Toppers advance to the NCAA Tournament.

At a regional school where most students grew up fans of other teams, that can be dangerous for attendance.

Just walk a few buildings up Avenue of Champions to Diddle Arena to see two examples of that.

Campus enthusiasm for baseball has a chance to dive in the same manner as it has for men’s and women’s basketball should WKU’s 2012 season also end without an NCAA berth.

Luckily for the Toppers, a lot of the pieces are in place to make a 2008 or 2009-like run this year.

New Head Coach Matt Myers has promised a team that’ll play good small ball, getting on base, getting people over and manufacturing runs.

Then when they need to play long ball, the Toppers have the services of senior right-fielder Ryan Hutchison and junior catcher Ryan Huck — two guys more than capable of big home runs.

The team’s defense last year was stellar at times, and Myers has promised it’ll be just as good this year.

And most importantly, WKU has perhaps the league’s two best arms in junior left-hander Tanner Perkins and sophomore right-hander Justin Hageman.

If WKU  can reach an NCAA Regional in 2012, the Toppers won’t have to rely on fans that were here during 2008 and 2009 to fill the stands.

Instead, they’ll have a new bunch of fans they can keep around the ballpark.