WKU falls in first C-USA contest against Charlotte

The WKU Baseball team huddles up prior to the first Conference USA series against Charlotte on March 26, 2021. 

Wyatt Sparkman

WKU (10-11, 0-1 C-USA) hosted the Charlotte 49ers (12-8, 1-0 C-USA) for their first conference game of the season on Friday afternoon. This was the Hilltopper’s first conference game since 2019. The Hilltoppers lost 7-4 to open Conference USA play.

“I thought our guys battled back. We got behind,” head coach John Pawlowski said. “We’re down 4-0 and I thought our team never gave up. They kept battling.”    

Sophomore Jackson Swiney went 2-for-3 for WKU with an RBI double in the bottom of the sixth inning. 

Sophomore Jack Dragum for Charlotte went 1-for-2 with two RBIs and a double.

The Hilltoppers were without sophomore Jackson Gray for Friday’s game due to a minor back injury. 

“Unfortunately he’s not able to play right now, so we hope that he gets healthy,” Pawlowski said.  

Redshirt sophomore Jake Kates got his first conference start of the season for WKU. He pitched for six innings allowing seven runs and picking up seven strikeouts.

“Jake’s done an outstanding job all year for us,” Pawlowski said. “Give Charlotte credit. I thought we left a couple of balls just in the top of the zone, maybe more so than he’s had in a while and they were able to put some pretty good swings on it.” 

For Charlotte, sophomore righty Bryce McGowan got his sixth start of the season. He pitched for six innings allowing three runs while striking out 10 WKU batters.

After both teams went three up and three down in the first inning, the 49ers got the bats going  with back-to-back singles in the top of the second frame. Then freshman Gino Groover scored the first run of the game on an RBI double from Dragum.

Charlotte extended their lead on a sacrifice fly to make the score 2-0 before Kates got out of the top of the second frame. WKU did not retaliate in the bottom of the second frame. 

In the top of the third frame, the 49ers kept the bats going with a lead-off single then an RBI double from sophomore Austin Knight to extend their lead 3-0. Knight was able to score himself on a sacrifice fly to make the score 4-0. 

Kates struck out Groover to send the game into the bottom of the third inning. Freshman Hunter Evans was the first WKU batter to get on base with two outs In the bottom of the third frame. Evans advanced to second base on a wild pitch but was left stranded on a sophomore Matthew Meyer strikeout.   

Both teams went three up and three down in the fourth inning. McGowan struck out the side and pitched a no-hitter through four innings of play.  

Sophomore Jackson Swiney led off the bottom of the fifth with a single, then senior Kevin Lambert followed with an RBI double for WKU’s first run of the game to make the score 4-1. Lambert was left stranded on third base after three straight WKU outs. 

Junior Craig Keuchel lead-off the top of the sixth frame with a double for the 49ers. Then Groover batted him in on an RBI single. Two batters later Dragum then extended the 49er lead to 7-1 on a sacrifice fly that scored Groover and a throwing error that scored freshman Will Butcher. 

Senior Ray Zuberer III doubled with two outs in the bottom of the sixth frame. After graduate Davis Sims walked, Swiney batted in Zuberer on an RBI double. Sims then scored on a balk to make the score 7-3. Swiney was left stranded on third base after Lambert flew out.

Both teams made pitching changes in the seventh inning. Junior Ryan O’Connell relieved Kates and redshirt junior Jackson Boss relieved McGowan. 

“I was really happy with the way I was pounding the strike zone, getting after guys, and just trying to keep the team in the game,” O’Connell said.

The 49ers went three up and three down in the top of the seventh inning. 

After Boss walked freshman Eric Riffe to lead off the bottom of the seventh frame, freshman Ty Crittenberger doubled to put WKU runners on second and third base. Riffe scored on an Evans ground out to make the score 7-4 going into the eighth inning. 

In the eighth inning and ninth inning, WKU could not cut into the lead anymore losing the game 7-4. Kates picked up his first loss of the season.       

Up next WKU hosts Charlotte for a doubleheader on Saturday starting at 11 a.m. The programs will play in two seven-inning contests. 

Junior Sean Bergeron is expected to start on the mound for the Hilltoppers in game two against the 49ers. 

Baseball beat reporter Wyatt Sparkman can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Wyatt on Twitter at @WyattSparkman3