John Pawlowski

Western Kentucky baseball coach John Pawlowski speaks March 28 at Nick Denes Field.. The Hilltoppers finished 26-29-1 this past season and reached the Conference USA Tournament in Biloxi. Miss.

Jake Sanford and an appearance in the Conference USA Tournament are two big reasons why Western Kentucky athletic director Todd Stewart is optimistic for the future of the Hilltoppers’ baseball program.

It’s not like WKU is trying to rediscover lost glory days in the sport. But seven years without a conference tournament win and consistent finishes near the bottom of the league standings meant 2019 was a pressure year for John Pawlowski’s Hilltoppers.

The fourth-year head coach turned in his best season – albeit under .500 – but what came from this spring was the league’s first triple crown hitter and respectable Conference USA record that led to a postseason victory.

Stewart told the Daily News on Thursday that sequence is enough to show him Pawlowski has WKU on the right path.

“This year validated that things are going in the right direction,” Stewart said.

WKU finished 26-29-1 this spring and went 1-2 in the C-USA Tournament last month in Biloxi, Miss. Those 26 wins were the most in four seasons under Pawlowski, whose record at WKU now stretches to 87-129-1 and 43-75-1 in C-USA. Pawlowski’s .400 winning percentage in four seasons is the worst of any coach in program history.

A 16-13-1 record in league play was good enough to finish fourth in the standings ahead of the conference tournament. WKU’s win against Old Dominion in the first round of the tournament was its first postseason win since the 2012 Sun Belt Conference Tournament. That win was followed by losses to Florida Atlantic and UTSA to end WKU’s season in the double-elimination format.

That result came after WKU combined to win just 17 conference games in 2017 and 2018. The Toppers haven’t finished above .500 since 2014, which was also their last conference tournament appearance before this season. Their fourth-place finish in the conference was their best since also finishing fourth in the Sun Belt in 2011.

WKU hasn’t put together a season close the 75-win stretch of 2008-09 when Chris Finwood coached the Toppers to back-to-back NCAA Regional appearances. Finwood left after 2011 to coach Old Dominion and was replaced by Matt Myers, who went 106-118 in four seasons and was fired after the 2015 season.

“Baseball really has been a sport that struggled the entire decade,” Stewart said. “We just haven’t been able to turn a corner in baseball and part of the reason is that it’s Conference USA’s best sport top to bottom. Every single year of the conference’s existence, at least two teams have gone to the NCAA Tournament and they did this year. FAU and Southern Miss went and won games.

“That being said, we needed to show some progress this year and fortunately we did. Coming in fourth in the league was the best regular-season finish since 2011 … you’re looking at a seven-, eight-year stretch where there wasn’t much to hang your hat on and this year we finished fourth, got to the tournament and won a game in the tournament.”

Jake Sanford’s bat was the Hilltoppers’ most reliable asset as the Nova Scotian put together one of the best seasons in program history. Sanford started all 56 games and slashed .398/.483/.805 with 88 hits, 178 total bases, 22 home runs, 20 doubles and 66 runs batted in.

With his .402 batting average, 22 homers and 65 RBIs going into the C-USA Tournament, Sanford became the first winner of C-USA’s triple crown in the league’s 24-year history. He led all Division I hitters with a .805 slugging percentage, ranked second with 178 total bases and tied for sixth with 22 home runs.

Sanford was drafted in the third round of the MLB Draft by the New York Yankees with the 105th overall pick and signed with the American League organization Thursday.

“Jake Sanford shined a light on the program unlike people have in recent years and hopefully that’ll help us in recruiting and other things,” Stewart said.

WKU’s 2019 roster was a story of attrition. Before the season in January, the team learned outfielder Luke Brown didn’t meet academic requirements after a freshman season batting .369. Brown transferred to a junior college and was picked by the New York Yankees in the 25th round of the MLB draft Wednesday.

The Hilltoppers then had major injury issues throughout the season. Murray State transfer Davis Sims was expected to add a consistent bat to the meat of the lineup but suffered a season-ending injury in early April. His replacement at first base, Richard Constantine, was sidelined with injury a few weeks later and missed much of the season.

Pitchers Michael Darrell-Hicks and Colby Taylor missed significant time with injuries, both of whom were expected to be weekend starters. Outfielder Jackson Swiney also missed time after a ball bounced off the outfield wall and made three orbital bone fractures around his left eye.

Factoring in Sanford’s profile and a winning record in the league and fighting through sporadic injuries, no changes are expected on the coaching staff.

WKU’s fourth-place finish in the league under Pawlowski came after the conference picked the Toppers to finish 10th in the preseason, the same spot they finished in 2018 and 2016.

“Sometimes a team is fragile and it can derail the whole season, but the fact we overcame that and had some really good wins was encouraging,” Stewart said. “John is incredibly organized, a tireless worker and a tireless recruiter and our program performs well academically. Until this year, every aspect of the program was good except we weren’t winning enough games. That’s a big thing. The most important thing. This year all the positives continued and we won more games, especially in conference play and it was good to see that.”{&end}

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