READY FOR RUSTON/Cavill’s three-run home run sends Hilltoppers to 6-2 victory over New Mexico State; WKU opens C-USA tourney play on Wednesday


Personable Australian Blake Cavill has been Western Kentucky’s stabilizing offensive force for the vast majority of the 2024 season, his first with the Hilltoppers after two years at Northwest Florida State College, a two-year school near picturesque Destin, Florida.

Perhaps then it was no coincidence that Cavill’s late season slump took place while the Hilltoppers were dropping six of seven games, after the calendar turned to May.

Cavill and the Hilltoppers needed a major boost in their final Conference USA series, a three-game set at WKU’s Nick Denes Field. Second-year coach Marc Rardin even brought Cavill off the bench in the second game of the series, an 11-9 victory over New Mexico State on Thursday night.

Cavill was in the DH role on Saturday afternoon, though, and he took a called third strike before being retired on a routine groundout in the first four innings against the Aggies. WKU trailed New Mexico State, 1-0, when the top of the Hilltoppers’ lineup came to bat against NMSU left-hander Joel Sharman in the bottom of the sixth. The Tops had done next to nothing at the plate, and they needed to make something happen.

They did just that.

Leadoff man Dylan O’Connell lashed a double off the fence in left-center field, before WKU teammate Austin Haller was hit by a pitch. That brought Cavill to the plate, and Rardin knew Cavill had shown a tendency to slap the ball to the right side of the infield.

Rardin gave Cavill a not-so-subtle reminder of that in the WKU dugout, before he stepped into the on-deck circle.

“I told him I’ve been watching it for a month now, giving away at-bats and rolling over to first or second base,” Rardin said.

Cavill was certainly listening.

The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Aussie crushed a 2-2 pitch from Sharman for a three-run home run to the left-field corner, giving the Hilltoppers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a critical 6-2 victory over the Aggies at The Nick.

Just for good measure, perhaps, WKU’s Kyle Hayes added a two-run, pinch-hit home run for the Tops with one out in the eighth, a shot to left-center field that put the issue to rest.

“The boys (in the WKU dugout) got excited,” Cavill said with a grin after it was over. “Hopefully we can take that down to Louisiana.”

That’s where the Tops’ late season slump really took shape, after they failed to hold a late lead before dropping a 9-7 decision to Louisiana Tech in Game One of their C-USA series on May 10. The Bulldogs mauled WKU by a combined 19-3 in the final two games of the series, upping the ante for the final three-game series against New Mexico State in Bowling Green.

Suffice it to say the Hilltoppers understood what was at stake.

“I was just really sitting away — a left-handed pitcher, everything was away all day,” Cavill said. “So I just got the pitch out on the plate, middle away and drove it backside to take the lead for the boys.”

WKU improved to 34-20 overall and 14-9 in Conference USA play, and the Hilltoppers will open C-USA Tournament play against Florida International (26-28, 11-13) on Wednesday morning at Louisiana Tech’s Pat Patterson Field.

New Mexico State (25-27, 10-14) will open tournament play against nationally ranked Dallas Baptist (40-13, 17-7), which represented C-USA in last year’s NCAA Tournament before finishing the season with a 47-16 record.

The Hilltoppers are last in C-USA in home runs, with 38 on the season, while teams such as Dallas Baptist (102 home runs), homestanding LA Tech (81 homers) and New Mexico State (79 homers) are prolific in that department. Second-year WKU coach Marc Rardin joked about the strategy of the late, great Earl Weaver, who had a Baseball Hall of Fame career with the Baltimore Orioles (1968-82, 1985-86).

“That’s what I used to call three-run home runs,” Rardin said with a laugh. “I just called them ‘Earl Weavers’ … (Saturday’s victory) definitely wasn’t the ‘WKU way,’ with a three-run home run, and then a two-run home run, but I’ll tell you what …

“Where we’re going, and the ballpark we’re playing in, that’s some of the stuff you’ve got to be able to do. Or else you’re not going to be able to keep up with the other team.”

Weaver’s baseball tenet actually was, “Pitching, defense and the three-run homer,” and he largely eschewed the bunt, playing for the big inning. Rardin has brought “small ball” proficiency to WKU, which often has had to manufacture its offense in critical games. On the plus side, Saturday’s victory over New Mexico State was the 20th comeback victory on the season for the Hilltoppers.

And they’re absolutely loaded in the bullpen.

WKU right-hander Mason Burns, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound closer from Bloomington, Illinois, is the national leader with 15 saves this season. Hee wasn’t in a save situation on Saturday, but he retired the Aggies, in order, to generate some positive vibes before the roadie to Ruston.

“To get these two wins here was big, to get some momentum,” Rardin said.

The Hilltoppers have had to make changes over the course of regular-season play, none bigger than the loss of sophomore WKU catcher Camden Ross to an arm injury earlier this month. Dylan O’Connell has stabilized the leadoff role since returning from injury, batting .281 with eight extra-base hits and 16 stolen bases in 22 attempts. Former Bowling Green High School star Eli Burwash has moved into an everyday role, whether he’s playing in the outfield, or his more natural positions, second base and third base. Burwash and O’Connell both had spectacular catches in WKU’s 11-9 victory over NMSU on Thursday night.

Junior catcher Joey Baran, one of many Hilltoppers to arrive via the NCAA transfer portal, has replaced Ross behind the plate. Zayd Brannigan, a junior from the Virgin Islands, has been a mainstay at shortstop, but WKU has experimented with other defensive alignments in the infield, which Rardin has said he’s willing to do.

On the mound, Rardin has accomplished relievers such as Mason Burns, Cal Higgins and Coby Moe, all of whom took their turns against New Mexico State on Saturday. Right-hander Jack Bennett and lefty Jacob Bimbi, a transfer from the University of Tennessee, have usually been the first two starters in C-USA series, but all of that is subject to change when the season is on the line this week in Ruston.

“My rotation, right now … we need to take advantage of the pitching staff,” Rardin said.

Senior left-hander Lane Diguid, one of eight players to return from Marc Rardin’s first WKU squad, gave the Tops three solid innings before yielding to right-hander Drew Whalen. Diguid was honored before the game on Senior Day, along with WKU teammates Burns, Moe and left-hander Cory Bosecker. Former BGHS standout Dawson Hall, a sophomore right-hander, has made seven starts this season and also will be available in Ruston.

“We’ve taken some gut punches,” Rardin admitted after Thursday’s doubleheader split with NMSU.

Rardin’s son, South Warren junior infielder/pitcher Griffin Rardin, announced his commitment to WKU on Saturday, so he’ll remain teammates with Spartans star Ethan Reynolds.

The Hilltoppers will leave for Louisiana on Monday morning, hoping to earn the school’s fifth berth, all-time, in the NCAA Tournament. WKU last played in the tournament in 2009, when it came out of the losers’ bracket and lost a winner-take-all game against host Ole Miss, 4-1, in Oxford, Mississippi.

WKU dropped two of three games to visiting Florida International in March, before winning nine of its next 10 games, and the Panthers (77 home runs, 177 extra-base hits) certainly don’t lack for power. Expect plenty of high-scoring games this week at Louisiana Tech, with every C-USA team’s season, outside Dallas Baptist and Louisiana Tech, appearing to be on the line.