GAME NOTES: Toppers open baseball season at home

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — It’s go-time at The Nick.

With a mix of 17 newcomers and nine in a driven senior class, the WKU Baseball team opens its 2017 season with a three-game series Feb. 17-19 against Horizon League opponent Valparaiso at Nick Denes Field. The Friday, Saturday and Sunday contests begin at 3 p.m., 1 p.m. and 1 p.m., respectively.

After losing 2-of-3 weekend starters from the 2016 bunch, head coach John Pawlowski announced Wednesday that he will begin his second season on The Hill with Ryan Thurston, Cody Coll and Paul Kirkpatrick at the center of the diamond.

“Our rotation was kind of up for grabs,” Pawlowski said. “Ryan has done an outstanding job for us; he has been out there in some big situations. Cody pitched in midweek last year and Paul has done a really good job for us, so we decided that was going to be the best fit to line up this weekend.”

The Hilltoppers will enjoy 17 of their first 21 games at the friendly confines of newly-renovated Nick Denes Field, which got a $1.3 million face lift in the Summer of 2016. Renovations included a full AstroTurf field, as well as redone dugouts, bullpens and outfield walls. Since the institution of the turf, infielders have enjoyed truer bounces and the team as a whole has put the days of pulling tarps and raking infields behind them.

Despite losing All-American and St. Louis Cardinals 10th round draft pick Danny Hudzina, WKU returns junior outfielders Steven Kraft (.319/.409/.476) and Kaleb Duckworth (.329/.421/.473) to the lineup. A career infielder, Kraft moves to the outfield from playing primarily second base in 2016, while Duckworth makes his return to the field after being limited to DH duties last season with a lingering shoulder injury.

“Everyone’s excited about getting out here and being a part of Opening Day,” Pawlowski said. “Our players have worked extremely hard, it’s an exciting time and I’m looking forward to seeing these guys compete against somebody else. They’ll get that opportunity this weekend against Valpo.”

The Crusaders, coming off their seventh 30-win season in program history, will pose an immediate threat on the Hilltoppers’ home turf. In a similar situation to WKU, Valpo lost 2-of-3 weekend starters, but also has eager newcomers looking to make impacts in the rotation and batting order. In his fourth year as the skipper, Brian Schmack previously served as the team’s pitching coach for seven years following a 10-year professional career that ended in 2004.

How to Follow the Hilltoppers: For complete information on WKU Hilltopper Baseball, follow the program via social media @WKUBaseball on Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram & Facebook.

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