Pawlowski previews opening round of C-USA tournament, reflects on regular season

WKU+head+coach+John+Pawlowski+argues+a+call+during+the+game+against+Middle+Tennessee+on+Friday%2C+April+16%2C+2021.

Credit: WKU Athletics

WKU head coach John Pawlowski argues a call during the game against Middle Tennessee on Friday, April 16, 2021.

Wyatt Sparkman, Baseball Reporter

The WKU baseball program will enter its second ever Conference USA tournament on Wednesday, May 26 in a matchup against the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles in the 2021 Air Force Reserve Conference USA Baseball Championship in Ruston, Louisiana.

“Trying to get these guys ready to go, certainly look forward to going down to Ruston for the tournament,” WKU Baseball head coach John Pawlowski said. “…You’ve got four teams that are ranked in the Top 25. That’s been quite a while since that’s happened. So the league is really good this year, it was a challenge, but certainly exciting for the Hilltoppers to be heading down there with an opportunity to play for a championship.”     

Pawlowski led the Hilltoppers to their first C-USA tournament appearance in 2019 where they picked up the program’s first-ever C-USA tournament win against Old Dominion. He explained that his team can draw on that experience to help in this year’s tournament as well.

“The guys that were there that are back, they have some great memories and some great experience to draw from, so that was great,” Pawlowski said. “I think our program took a huge step forward in 2019 and now this group that’s back, we want to obviously go to the tournament, but our goal is to win that tournament and do whatever we can to find a way to win it. We’ve got an experienced group back from 2019, so I think it’ll really help us.” 

A conference tournament is not uncharted waters for Pawlowski. In 2006, he led College of Charleston to the Southern Conference Championship along with a Super Regional appearance in the College World Series that same year.  

“When you look at teams that win conference championships, win regionals, win super regionals, win Omaha, it’s teams that get hot at the right time,” Pawlowski said. “You catch a few breaks, the most talented team doesn’t always win, and that’s the beauty of our sport.”

WKU’s opponent on Wednesday, Southern Miss, advanced to the championship game in the last four C-USA tournaments, winning three of them. The Golden Eagles won their regular season series against the Hilltoppers 3-1, with their three wins coming by a total of just five runs. 

“They’re very good on the mound, offensively they’ve got a lot of threats in their lineup, they’re one of those teams where if you make mistakes they’re really going to hurt you,” Pawlowski said. “…We haven’t decided who we’re going to start yet, we’re trying to evaluate that. They’ve got some very talented hitters, especially left-handed hitters, in that lineup so we continue to evaluate it and see what we’re going to do.” 

WKU’s ace for the majority of the season, redshirt sophomore Jake Kates, has allowed 20 runs in his last three C-USA starts after surrendering just 26 runs over his first 10 appearances.  

“He’s got tremendous stuff, he can strike guys out with a multitude of pitches, I think he just kind of got away from the mentality, the mindset that he had,” Pawlowski said. “We’ve worked on that, we’ve done some mechanical things too, obviously he’s excited about what he can bring to the table. I know he’s working on it and he certainly isn’t happy with the way he’s thrown lately.”

Kates was one of many Hilltoppers that stepped up and took a starting role over the course of the season. WKU only has two starters in the same position as they were on opening day. 

“The one thing that really strikes me is when you look at our starting lineup from opening day to where we are today,” Pawlowski said. “Jake Kates was a reliever, we had a different catcher, there’s only two positions that are the same from opening day and that’s Kevin Lambert at shortstop and Jackson Gray in right field.”

“You look at Ray Zuberer [III], Zuberer was a starting center fielder and now he’s an everyday second baseman,” Pawlowski continued. “Matthew Meyer wasn’t in the lineup and now he’s our everyday third baseman.”

WKU won at least one game against every team in the tournament, except for Louisiana Tech and UTSA, who they have not played all season. WKU will play one of those two teams no matter if they win or lose on Wednesday night.  

“When I look at this league, it’s probably the most talented league I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Pawlowski said. “When you have an opportunity to go to the tournament, and to win the games that we’ve had an opportunity to win, they should have confidence.” 

First pitch from WKU versus Southern Miss will come at 7:30 p.m. CT on Wednesday, May 26. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.

Baseball beat reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected]