BOWLING GREEN – The 2019 WKU Baseball team put together the program’s best season in Conference USA since joining the league in 2015.
The Hilltoppers set new marks with 16 conference wins and a fourth-place finish in the league standings, all culminating in the team securing its first-ever C-USA Tournament victory.
A taste of success has bred an ultra-focused mindset for 2020; last year was great, but we want to do more.
“It was great to break the ice, so to speak, and it was a big step for our team and the players who have been here in this program,” said head coach John Pawlowski. “But I think the biggest challenge for this group is, ‘Okay what we did last year is great, but now it’s time to go out and prove it again.’
“This league is a challenge, but our goals remain the same – go to the Conference USA Tournament, win a championship and advance to the NCAA Regionals.”
WKU has improved its final standing in C-USA in each of the past three seasons, and both the coaching staff and players are looking to continue that trend in 2020.
“My first year here we ended up in 12th place, second year we ended up in 10th and then last year fourth,” said senior shortstop Kevin Lambert. “We overcame a lot last year, and to finish fourth and win our first conference tournament game was great, but we can build off of that and be even better this year.”
“It was good to just get there [to the C-USA Tournament] and get that under our belt,” said redshirt junior reliever Bailey Sutton. “But I think this year, there’s a lot higher aspirations for everybody than just making it or winning one game.”
A veteran presence will be felt throughout this year’s roster, with the Hilltoppers returning 18 players from a season ago.
Nine seniors are back on The Hill, including 2020 C-USA All-Preseason Teamer Richard Constantine and six others – Lambert, Sam McElreath, Matt Phipps, Davis Sims, Jack Wilson and Ray Zuberer III – who are expected to fill seven of the nine starting spots and give WKU one of the most experienced lineups in the nation.
Meanwhile, Sutton, Jack Lambert, Collin Lollar, Dalton Shoemake and Hunter Crosby bring experience to the pitching staff, as do Michael Darrell-Hicks and Colby Taylor, who return healthy and eager to add to the mix after missing all of 2019 due to injury.
Last but not least, expect more great things from 2019 C-USA All-Freshman Teamer Jackson Swiney’s left-handed bat and outfield glove.
This is a team that has faced countless high-pressure situations in the batter’s box and on the mound, and has had the opportunity to both experience and grow from it as a group.
“We’ve got experience everywhere and we know how to play the game,” said Lambert. “We’ve seen a lot. Really just all the experiences that we’ve had over the past three years. Having that experience comes in handy because if there’s a tough situation, we have trust in each other and we know what to do.”
With experience comes leadership, and the veteran players on this team are more than happy to step into those roles and act as mentors for the younger group.
“Now that we’re the older guys, it’s nice to have a voice and help move the team in the right direction,” said Sutton. “I know younger guys sometimes struggle with feeling a purpose on the team, just because they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I’ll play this year.’ But even if you don’t play, there’s still a purpose for everything.
“I know we’ve talked to the younger guys about that a lot, just like, ‘Maybe you don’t pitch as many innings as you did during your senior year of high school, but you’re a freshman, you learn from it and try to take as much in as you can and then in the future hopefully you can do similar things.’”
That type of leadership should translate to a quick adjustment period for the 20 new players on this season’s roster, which includes a mix of 14 JuCo transfers and six freshmen.
With a large core of last year’s team still in place, the newcomers will have the luxury of easing into their new roles as they settle in.
The Hilltoppers have also made multiple additions to their coaching staff, which Pawlowski believes to be one of his most complete groups since coming to The Hill in 2015.
Adam Pavkovich, who has eight years of professional playing experience and most recently served on Notre Dame’s coaching staff, has joined WKU for its 2020 campaign as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator.
The Hilltoppers have also promoted former reliever Conner Boyd from student assistant coach to volunteer assistant coach, opening the door for Nick Brunson to step into the student assistant coach role after spending the last two seasons as an infielder on WKU’s roster.
Not to mention second-year assistant coach Ben Wolgamot, who helped the Hilltopper offense make great strides in his first season as the team’s hitting coach in 2019.
“I feel very good about our staff and the message that is being passed on to our student-athletes,” said Pawlowski. “They care deeply about our players both on and off the field.
With their staff and roster now in place, the Hilltoppers will prepare for what looks to be a grueling 2020 slate.
Besides facing its always-competitive Conference USA opponents, WKU is also set to play seven games against Power 5 opponents in Kentucky, Louisville (twice), Purdue (three times) and Vanderbilt – with Louisville and Vanderbilt owning the top two spots in almost every national preseason rankings poll.
The Hilltoppers’ schedule also includes nine matchups against teams that finished the 2019 season either ranked or receiving votes in the polls, six contests against squads that advanced to the 2019 NCAA Tournament and six games against teams that closed out their 2019 campaign inside the top-50 RPI.
With a challenging schedule ahead, the team has shown a commitment to the process needed to eventually reach the bigger goals and aspirations set for this season.
“We talk about our goals and aspirations, but the biggest challenge is that you have to have the passion, desire and work ethic to go about your business every day,” said Pawlowski. “I am really encouraged about this group and the way they practice and prepare. Our experienced lineup will certainly lead the way and allow the younger players to prepare for their opportunities as the season progresses.”
That preparation has led to a laser focus on the team’s season-opener against Valpo, with the squad knowing it has to take a game-by-game and series-by-series approach to find the success it’s striving for.
“Hopefully we can start off with a strong weekend against Valpo – that’s the main goal as of now,” said Sutton. “It’s nice to think about conference and all that stuff and think about people’s roles, but it comes down to – when someone’s out there – being in the right place at the right time. That’s your role at that point, and it doesn’t matter where you’re at, just try to do your job as best you can to help us win game one. Once we do that, then win game two, and do that throughout the season.
“I think if we just take it one pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time, one game at a time – then we will be fine.”