Burkle Has WLU Baseball Team off to Fine Start

WEST LIBERTY – After a few years of being on the losing end, West Liberty decided to try a different approach with its baseball program for the 2013 season.

So far, so good.

The Hilltoppers, guided by first-year coach Eric Burkle, have already matched their total number of victories from a year ago (11) and currently sit atop the West Virginia Conference’s North Division with a perfect 9-0 record.

”The last five years have been long,” Burkle admitted. ”Five-hundred was always the goal (former coach) Bo (McConnaughy) and I set every year. We’ve been well below.500.”

Once Burkle became skipper after 30 years of McConnaughy at the helm, the former Wheeling Central coach decide the team’s mentality needed a bit of tweaking.

”We made it clear from the start: This is big-boy baseball,” he said. ”Every kid has a role. Those not willing to perform that role are not needed.”

According a Burkle, there wasn’t too much resistance from the locker room.

”Some veterans tried to buck the system, but once they saw what we were capable of, they were on board,” he said. ”We’ve really made this into a high-energy program. Negative energy is not much use to us. We want kids with positive energy. It’s paid off from what we can see.”

The Toppers are currently on a five-game winning streak after starting the season 6-9, but have yet to play a true home game.

Due to the weather the Valley has been experiencing, West Liberty has had to move games from Kovalick Field to Consol Energy Park in Washington, Pa.

”They want to change the name from ‘Home of the Wild Things’ to ‘Home of the Hilltoppers,”’ Burkle joked. ”It’s nice to play on that turf. We’re one of the few schools that has been fortunate enough to be able to play most of our games this season. It just seems like this winter won’t go away.”

Out of the seven games West Liberty has played in Washington, five have been victories, including an impressive three-game sweep of the University of Pitt-Johnstown, a perennial conference powerhouse.

”Between the coach and players, they’ve put it all in,” Burkle said. ”We’ve already surpassed last year’s home run total. Our batting average is up. Our slugging average is up. And, this is what really has been the big difference this year, our walks and ERA are well below what they were expected to be. The pitching staff has completely done their jobs.

”The results, so far, have been better than what we could have imagined, by far. Everyone is fully committed.”

That’s a good reason why the team received votes in this week’s Atlantic Region pool. It’s the first time anyone seems to remember a Hilltopper baseball team receiving regional votes in a while.

”These kids have busted their butts to get this,” Burkle said. ”They deserve everything they get.”

Burkle has also added something new to the baseball program that he hopes will implement a long run of Hilltoppers success – a junior varsity team.

However, Burkle will be the first to admit it’s not your typical jayvee team.

”It’s really more of a junior college program,” he said. ”Why get kids that have been somewhere else for two years before putting them on our team? We want to groom our own players.”

The jayvee team is scheduled to play eight games this season and Burkle hopes the addition will keep kids interested and sharp.

”Some kids coming out of high school at 18 years old just simply haven’t full matured yet. This gives them an opportunity to play college baseball before they get that spurt.”

With a new team hungry for success, Burkle has only given the squad two rules to live by.

”One is don’t be stupid and the other is don’t play basketball. They have really bought into it 40 kids strong. They’ve all bonded and click and it’s starting to pay off.”