Texas-San Antonio scored 11 runs in the final three innings and ended Western Kentucky’s season with a 15-8 win at the Conference USA Tournament on Friday night in Biloxi, Miss.
Ahead 7-5 with two outs and the bases empty in the bottom of the sixth, WKU (26-29-1) allowed the next five UTSA batters to reach and the No. 8-seed Roadrunners scored three runs to take an 8-7 lead it would never relinquish.
“Endings are never easy, when it’s final it’s very difficult,” WKU coach John Pawlowski said in a news release. “We just talked about how proud we are as a group, as a staff, as a program of what these guys accomplished this year. At some point we needed to break the ice and make a spot in the Conference USA Tournament and this was the year we did that.”
After not qualifying for the C-USA Tournament in their first four years in the league, the Hilltoppers earned a spot with a 16-13-1 record as the No. 4 seed. The team won a game in a conference tournament for the first time since a 7-4 victory May 26 in the 2012 Sun Belt Tournament over Louisiana Monroe.
WKU’s 26 wins are the most in Pawlowski’s four seasons as head coach, whose career record with the Hilltoppers is now 87-129-1 overall and 43-75-1 in C-USA.
“I talked to the seniors first and told them how they’ve left their mark here,” Pawlowski said. “They’ll always be remembered as the first group to help get us to this tournament, which is important. And the guys who will be back need to use this is a motivating factor to play on this stage.”
Right fielder Jake Sanford went 4-for-5 with a walk, while left fielder Ray Zuberer III went 1-for-4 with two walks and tied a career-high with three runs scored. The Owensboro native hit his seventh home run of the season in the fourth inning to become the first league player to hit two home runs this week at MGM Park.
Designated hitter Richard Constantine went 3-for-5 and first baseman Jack Wilson went 3-for-6 at the plate; each Hilltopper scored a run. Freshman center fielder Jackson Swiney reached base four times on a career-high three walks and his 10th hit by pitch of his rookie season.
Seniors Nick Brunson, Reece Calvert, Joe Filosa, Jacob Green and Troy Newell played their last games in a WKU uniform this week in Biloxi; they became the first elders to lead the Hilltoppers to an appearance in the league's tournament.
Sanford’s 2019 C-USA Player of the Year campaign was one of the best in program history. Starting all 56 games while playing every single inning in the outfield, the Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, native slashed .398/.483/.805 with 88 hits, 178 total bases, 22 home runs, 20 doubles, 66 runs batted in and 65 scored. He also walked 33 times and stole six bases.
His league-leading batting average, home run and RBI rate earned him the first Triple Crown honor ever by a C-USA hitter.
Sanford’s 66 runs batted in and 65 scored both finish ninth on WKU’s single-season charts, while his 22 homeruns are fifth. His 88 hits just finished shy of cracking the top 10, with Danny Hudzina (2016) and Matt Rice (2010) tied with 89 knocks apiece. His 20 doubles also just finished shy of the record books, as three Hilltoppers are tied for eighth with 21 two-baggers.
With the 2019 MLB Draft approaching, Sanford was recently rated by MLB Pipeline as the No. 108 overall prospect, including the No. 17 outfielder among eligible players. The event will take place June 3-5, with the first two rounds as well as competitive balance and compensatory picks on Day 1. Rounds 3-10 will be on Day 2, with rounds 11-40 on Day 3.