Lafayette, La. — After going to the NCAA Regionals in 1980 for the first time in the program’s history, it took the Western Kentucky University baseball program 24 years to make it back to the national stage. The wait for trip number three wasn’t nearly as long as the Hilltoppers captured their second Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship in five years with a 17-5 win over New Orleans Sunday morning at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field.
“I couldn’t be prouder of this bunch. They’ve battled all year long,” said Hilltopper head coach Chris Finwood. “It feels great to get this program back to the NCAA Regionals, and this is just an amazing group to go through that experience with.”
Matt Hightower set the offensive tone early as he knocked a solo home run over the wall in right off Privateer starter Matt Brown in the top of the first to give the Toppers an early 1-0 lead. In fact, WKU would go on to score in each of their first four at bats.
The Hilltoppers quickly loaded the bases with nobody out in the second inning. Matt Payton then singled to drive in Wade Gaynor with the second run of the game. One out later, a Scott Kaskie fielder’s choice chased home Jake Wells to make it a 3-0 game.
The big blow for WKU came in the third inning, sending nine men to the plate and scoring four times. Again the Toppers were able to load the bases with one out before Matt Rice picked up a two-run single to again stretch the lead to 5-0. Then, with two outs in the frame, Kaskie came through with a two-RBI base hit as the Toppers opened up a 7-0 advantage.
The Privateers finally got on the board against WKU starter Colby Beach in the bottom of the third when Joey Butler drew a leadoff and scored from first on a double by T.J. Baxter to make it a six-run game. However, the Toppers came right back in the top of the fourth when Wells singled in Cregar to make it a 8-1 game.
UNO began to chip away at the lead in the fifth when Josh Vander Hey singled home Jay Morris with two out to cut the Hilltopper lead to six. Beach appeared to be out of the sixth when he surrendered a two-out single to Mark McGonigle, but an error on a ball hit by Joey Butler kept the inning alive and put runners at the corners. Morris then singled home an unearned run, and Baxter singled off reliever Evan Teague to drive in Butler and make cut the Hilltopper lead in half. However, Rye Davis came out of the bullpen and was able to strike out Johnny Giavotella looking to end the threat and keep it an 8-4 game.
Privateer reliever David Burch retired the first six batters he faced after entering the game with one out in the fifth. However, a Payton bunt single with one out in the seventh got another run-scoring rally started. J.B. Paxson and Kaskie followed with singles — with Kaskie’s driving in Payton — to make it a 9-4 game. That momentum carried into the eighth when Chad Cregar walked to lead off the inning, and Gaynor collected his fourth hit of the game with a single to put runners at first and second. Wells then singled home pinch runner Jeremy Coleman to get the Toppers into double digits. Reliever Tyler Sanders then got Rice to ground into a double play, but Gaynor came home to score to make it an 11-4 game.
The Privateers threatened again in the eighth, loading the bases with nobody out against Davis. After a strikeout by Morris for the first out of the inning, a long at bat by Baxter ended with a deep sacrifice fly ball to right that brought home Alan Harris to make it an 11-5 game. Davis was able to also retire Giavotella to get out of the jam with just one run surrendered.
WKU added four more insurance runs in the ninth when Terrence Dayleg and Rice both doubled home two runs to stretch the lead to 15-5. Payton then doubled home Rice to make it a 16-5 game. J.B. Paxson followed with the third straight double that brought home Payton to make it a 17-5 game. Davis then finished off his fourth save with a perfect ninth inning to cap off the most lopsided Sun Belt Tournament championship game ever.
Wells — who was named tournament MVP — finished with three hits and a pair of RBI, while Gaynor led the way with a four-hit contest. Payton also collected three hits, while Kaskie, Hightower, Cregar, Rice and Paxson had two hits as WKU tied a season-high with 21 hits. Gaynor, Cregar and Matt Ridings joined Wells on the all-tournament team. Beach (3-3) got the win as he allowed just two earned runs in 5.2 innings, striking out three.
The Hilltoppers will find out where they will be heading for the NCAA Regionals on Monday when the tournament selection show airs at 11:30 a.m. (CDT) on ESPN.