The WKU softball team’s season came to a close on Wednesday, as the third-seeded Hilltoppers (37-13) lost in their first Conference USA tournament game to sixth-seeded Middle Tennessee (29-28). The Blue Raiders kept WKU’s offense quiet, notching a 1-0 win just over two weeks after the Hilltoppers traveled to Murfreesboro and swept MTSU in a three-game set.
The game remained scoreless until the top of the seventh inning, when the Blue Raiders loaded the bases and broke through with the lone run scored between both squads. The Hilltoppers needed one run in the bottom of the seventh to move into extra innings. But WKU failed to do so, stranding freshman Jordan Ridge at second base — the fourth Hilltopper left on in the game.
Junior Kelsey Aikey took the loss in the circle while pitching a complete game for WKU. Aikey finished with six hits, one run, five walks and 10 strikeouts, which included three straight strikeouts to get the Hilltoppers out of a bases-loaded-no-out jam early in the contest.
The one-hit effort marked the first time in four C-USA tournament trips that the Hilltoppers failed to win a single game at the event. Although WKU didn’t quite get the postseason results it had been hoping for, the 2019 regular season still held many small victories for the Hilltoppers.
The team had its best start in program history, recording five C-USA series sweeps. The Hilltoppers dropped only two series to a conference opponent all season.
WKU posted an overall record of 37-13, which marks the best single-season win percentage in the program’s history at .740. The Hilltoppers also posted an 18-6 record in C-USA play, which helped WKU win an outright East Division crown by finishing atop its side of the conference.
The Hilltoppers also posted an overall batting average of .293, good for second in C-USA. WKU took down No. 17 Kentucky in March, which was its first time topping a ranked team since 2015.
WKU pitchers dominated in the circle this season. Aikey, sophomore Shelby Nunn and freshman Kennedy Sullivan were responsible for almost all of the pitching this season and worked to post an earned run average of 2.75, the second-best mark in the conference.
The Hilltoppers collected many C-USA awards this year, with multiple Player of the Week and Pitcher of the Week honors. Five WKU players also collected All-Conference or All-Freshman honors, with sophomore Kendall Smith becoming the first Hilltopper to collect First-Team All-Conference recognition since the 2015 season.
WKU’s overall record of 37-13 showed great improvement from the 2018 season. Last year, head coach Amy Tudor’s team finished at 28-26, posting a .519 winning percentage.
The end of the season also marked the end of four seniors’ careers as Hilltoppers, as Shannon Plese, Jordan Vorbrink, Rebekah Engelhardt and Kelsey McGuffin finished their time on the Hill.
Those four senior contributors will be key losses for the program moving into the 2020 season, but the Hilltoppers are currently slated to return the rest of their roster from this season.
Pitchers Aikey, Nunn and Sullivan, along with hitters Smith, Paige Carter and Jordan Thomas, lead a talented crop of returners who will work to continue the growth and improvement WKU’s program has seen over the past few seasons next spring.
Reporter Sophie Austin can be reached at 270-745-2653 and Sophie.Austin380@topper.wku.edu.