WKU loses 15-1 to ODU

Western Kentucky right fielder Jake Sanford watches a home run go over the fence Friday during the Hilltoppers’ 15-1 loss to ODU at Nick Denes Field.

Western Kentucky takes the field this week for the first time ever in a Conference USA Tournament. And it’ll do so with C-USA’s first-ever Triple Crown winner in right field.

Jake Sanford finished the 2019 regular season with a .402 batting average, 22 home runs and 65 runs batted in. He led the league in all three of those categories, becoming the first Conference USA hitter to ever accomplish a Triple Crown.

“It’s crazy,” Sanford told the Daily News on Monday of his accomplishment. “For it to be the first time ever in Conference USA, it’s a great honor.”

Sanford is the star for a Hilltopper team that’s outplayed both its preseason expectations and recent history.

WKU joined C-USA in the summer of 2014, and the 2015 season was the baseball program’s first in the conference.

The 12-team league requires a team to finish in the top eight to qualify for its postseason tournament. The Toppers never met that threshold their first four years in Conference USA, missing out on the event each season from 2015-18.

Coach John Pawlowski’s WKU squad was picked 10th in January’s preseason coaches’ poll.

Four months later, the Hilltoppers (25-27-1 overall, 16-13-1 C-USA) are the No. 4 seed this week at the Conference USA tourney in Biloxi, Miss. They’ll face No. 5 seed Old Dominion (35-19, 16-14) at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in a first-round matchup.

Should WKU win that contest, it’ll face either No. 1 seed Florida Atlantic or No. 8 seed Texas-San Antonio on Thursday in a winner’s bracket game. A loss would drop the Tops into the losers’ bracket, where they’d play an elimination game Thursday.

“We’ve talked about this from day one,” Pawlowski said. “One of our goals was to find a way to get into the Conference USA Baseball Tournament. …

“How exciting is this? We get to go down and play. You’ve got eight teams competing for a championship. We have just as good a chance as anybody in the field to win this thing.”

WKU is in this event despite a pitching staff that ranked 12th with a 6.20 ERA in C-USA games. The Hilltoppers made up for that with an offense that ranked fourth in batting average (.295), on-base percentage (.382) and runs (199) during league play.

Sanford’s been the man to lead that attack. In conference games alone, the Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, native hit .439 with 14 home runs and 41 RBIs.

The junior is in his first year at WKU after transferring from McCook (Neb.) Community College.

“I don’t know that there’s another player in the country who has impacted a program as much as he has in one year, in his first year,” Pawlowski said. “To do it over 30 conference games and to do it over the course of the season and continue to play at an elite level, it’s pretty special.

“He’s done a tremendous job for us.”

This week in Biloxi will mark Sanford’s first time playing in a Division I conference tournament. He and his Topper teammates will seek the program’s first tournament crown since 2008, which would bring the program’s first NCAA Regionals berth since 2009.

“It’s a huge, exciting moment for the program,” Sanford said. “For the 100th year (in WKU baseball history), it’s great that we’re going there.

“We’ll have to show how we can play and try to win a championship.”

Conference USA regular-season leaders

Batting average

1. Jake Sanford, WKU – .402

2. Mason Mallard, La Tech – .376

3. Elvis Peralta, Marshall – .352

4. Ryan Stacy, UTSA – .345

5. Bryce Windham, ODU – .343

Home runs

1. Jake Sanford, WKU – 22

2. Matt Wallner, USM – 19

3. Vinnie Pasquantino, ODU – 15

4. Andrew Dunlap, Rice – 13

4. Myles Christian, MTSU – 13

RBIs

1. Jake Sanford, WKU – 65

2. Andy Garriola, ODU – 61

3. Andrew Dunlap, Rice – 57

4. Hunter Slater, USM – 56

5. Andru Summerall, FAU – 54{&end}

– Follow Daily News sports reporter Brad Stephens on Twitter @BradBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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Bowling Green Daily News sports reporter primarily covering Western Kentucky football and men's basketball.

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