West Liberty Baseball swept by Union in season-opening series

Head Coach Eric Burkle’s West Liberty Hilltoppers traveled to Jackson, Tenn. this past weekend to open their 2022 season versus the Union University Bulldogs in a four-game series. The series consisted of back-to-back doubleheaders on Friday, Feb. 11 and Saturday, Feb. 12 and marked the first of three series to start the Hilltoppers’ schedule.

Union, who finished last season 15-21, started their season on a low note, being swept by No. 26 ranked Young Harris College in a three-game series. However, after two one-run losses in their final two games of the series, their luck was bound to change, and it most certainly did on the first day of their series against West Liberty.

West Liberty, coming off a 21-20 record last season, started their season off strong with a two-run homer in the first inning of game one by designated hitter Bradley Goodyear. However, things quickly went south for Toppers starting pitcher Logan Grimm, who walked Union leadoff hitter Trey Frierson then gave up a 2-run homer to second-baseman Patrick Music. After two Union at-bats, West Liberty had lost the lead, and the Bulldogs never looked back after scoring five runs in their first six batters. After coughing up two more runs in the second inning, Grimm turned things around, keeping Union scoreless until he exited after the fifth inning. Things went from bad to worse for the Hilltoppers as the bullpen gave up another ten runs and Union cruised to a 17-2 victory in game one. Union was buoyed by an impressive performance by their mid-lineup combination of Josh Bozoian, Grayson Swanson and Jake Baker, who combined for 13 RBI.

Looking to turn things around, the Hilltoppers moved on to game two. However, things went south in the first inning, as starting pitcher Ian Brady loaded the bases with the first three batters of the game for the Bulldogs. A wild pitch to the Bulldogs’ cleanup hitter Bozoian scored the leadoff hitter Frierson, and one batter later the game was 3-0 Union after a two-RBI single by Swanson. Brady would allow four more runs before being removed from the game after the fourth inning with West Liberty trailing 7-0. Any hope for a West Liberty comeback was lost in the bottom of the sixth, when the Bulldogs tacked on an additional six runs to put the game far out of reach. A single by Ty Helmke in the top of the seventh provided the only run for West Liberty as Sam Leach scored, but the comeback bid came up way short as the Toppers were defeated 13-1 in game two.

The Hilltoppers looked to turn around their fortunes in game three on Saturday with Justin Studd starting on the mound. A sacrifice fly by Bozoian gave Union a 1-0 lead in the first inning, and an RBI double by center fielder Billy Beckham gave them a 2-0 lead in the second. However, West Liberty rallied back to tie the game in the third with Connor Ferguson scoring on an error and Ryan Talbert scoring on a sacrifice bunt by Ross Salvatori. The game remained tied at two until the bottom of the sixth inning, when a strong performance by Studd turned sour as Bozoian hit an RBI-double and was scored by Swanson on a base hit to make the game 4-2 Union. After Baker reached on an error, Swanson advanced to third then scored on wild pitches. A run by West Liberty in the top of the seventh was quickly erased by three runs by Union in the bottom of the inning, making the game 8-3. The Hilltoppers scored two runs in the top of the eighth and another in the top of the 9th, but the comeback came up short and Union won their third consecutive game, 8-6.

Still searching for their first win of the new season, the Hilltoppers moved onward to game four behind starting pitcher Justin Pennybacker. Once again, Union took the lead in the first inning with an RBI single by Bozoian, and kept it until the top of the fourth inning, when a sacrifice fly by Ferguson made it a 1-1 game. West Liberty took the lead in the top of the fifth as Ross Salvatori capitalized on an errant throw as he swiped third base, scoring to make the game 2-1 West Liberty. The lead wouldn’t last long however, as Bozoian scored on an error by the pitcher Pennybacker to tie the game, Swanson scored on a wild pitch to take the lead for Union, and Slater Schield and Ben Smith added unearned runs to make it a 5-2 ballgame for the Bulldogs. In the top of the seventh, West Liberty rallied, loading the bases with walks by Salvatori, Helmke and Kaden Blomquist. With two outs, the Hilltoppers brought the go-ahead run to the plate with the bases loaded. However, Ethan Conley struck out swinging to seal West Liberty’s fourth, and most heartbreaking loss of the weekend.

The Hilltoppers baseball team returns to action next Wednesday, Feb. 23 against Malone University for another four-game series in Mason, Ohio. For more information about West Liberty baseball, visit Hilltopper Sports.